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Critiques Page 6

Copyright © 1999, 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.

Blue Streak, 1999, Director: Les Mayfield, Writers: Michael Berry, John Blumenthal, Stephen Carpenter

Comedy the way it should be

This story is a good example of comedy that develops out of situations. There are a lot of ways to do comedy. You can do one-liners, like it was a nightclub act. You can do slap-stick, make faces, and a lot of other techniques that a comedy specialist could enumerate. But I think that the best comedy comes from situations. Situation comedy gave TV comedy the name "sitcom." But sitcoms today seem to rely so much on other techniques that the situation is hardly noticeable.

In Blue Streak, Logan (Martin Lawrence) was genuinely funny. It helps to have a genuinely funny actor. But the thing that I liked best was that the comedy came out of situations that were really part of the story. Logan is a burglar, pretending to be a cop, and he continuously runs into people he knows, who are committing crimes. So he has to arrest them wthout giving himself away - really funny - and then find a way to free them. And, as a detective in the police station, he is constantly looking wandering around police headquarters looking at the ventilation system and trying to find ways to get into it, and getting discovered. Again, excellent comedy that comes out of the situation.

Several of the scenes were a little unbelievable, but in comedy and action movies we suspend disbelief a little more than in drama. But the incident in the food store, in which Logan is present as a police detective when it happens to be robbed by a friend, was a little too coincidental. I was bounced out of the fictional dream unceremoniously onto my incredulous derrier on this one. This scene seemed contrived.

The ending is really good, up until the point that the detectives reveal that they know who he really is. That looked contrived - just added at the last minute to build the ending, but not ever part of the plot. And he didn't have to shoot the guy in the end - he had already won and rubbed the other guy's nose in it - it was unnecessary violence. I think that the ending was just overwritten, and it left me a little cold. When it's over, it's over, stop writing.

- Scott    

For more information on contrived stories, see Script Doctor:

Manipulated Or Contrived - Avoid Quick Fix Or Mechanical Solutions

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 Sixth Sense, 1999, Director: M. Night Shyamalan, Writer: M. Night Syhamalan

Surveys show that 90% of moviegoers want to see comedy. If it isn't a comedy, they at least want a satisfying resolution - even if it is a dark movie. Of three movies that I have seen recently that were potentially dark, The Red Violin, The Sixth Sense, and Arlington Road (not reviewed here), all were captivating, well written, and well acted, but only one had a satisfying resolution. Arlington Road actually left me feeling down for hours. Only with one did I leave the theater glad that I had seen it. The Sixth Sense. Congratulations to Shyamalan for having the sixth sense to write it that well.

This movie is an extremely good example of a plot twist. The ending is a twist that hits you from out of nowhere, like one of the spirits in the movie, but then you realize it was there all along. Every bit of  the story was so well done that the ending is completely masked.

This is also a good example of well developed characters. Shyamalan has leveraged his experience (I think) from similar characters in previous films to create the excellent young man, Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osmet). The character is very believable for a certain kind of young man having the experiences he is having. Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis -  who showed he does have potential as a dramatic actor - well done), turns out to be as human as any of us and grows through the story. 

- 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.

The Red Violin, 1999, Director : Franēois Girard. Co-writers: Franēois Girard and Don McKellar 

I was disappointed that the theater was nearly empty, but it was to be expected. The Red Violin is a tragedy story and tragedies just don't do well at the box office. But this story is a wonderful example of several things - not the least of which is not to write a tragedy if you want people to view your story. This is an excellent example of how a plot works. The plot is laid out naked and plain to be easily seen.

This is the story of a violin that was born of tragedy, and the tragedies that it brought to other's lives. A violin maker's wife, Anna (Irene Grazioli), and newborn baby die during childbirth. The violin maker Nicolo Bussotti (Carlo Cecchi), then takes out his anger on his prize creation, cursing the violin. Through the centuries, the violin brings death or suffering to all who claim it.

What is a plot? A plot is like a line that pulls you through a story. It is the continuing need of the protagonist that continually draws the protagonist into conflict situations, or a continuing theme that finds its expression in the unfolding drama. In this story, it is the violin and its tragic consequences which draw the viewer forward toward the end. The plot remains plainly in view. In a series of vignettes (short stories), the violin takes us sequentially into the lives of many people over the centuries. The only unifying element among these stories is the tragedy caused by the violin.

To help create some unity in the story (apparently) three excellent devices are used. For the first device, at the beginning the woman who dies in childbirth consults a seer who begins revealling her future. In a style similar to a narrator, the two react to the future between each vignette, as if it were the woman's future, not that of the violin. This helps to create some sense of unity and plotting, and anticipation, but it is like a motif - it really has no essential part in the story. The story would still be the same story without it.

The second device employed is like a mirror image of past narrator, but in the future. A future moment is shown in which many people gather at an auction to bid on the violin. These are the people who know of the violin's history. This also is shown between vignettes, developing a little more of the story of the auction each time. This device operates just like the narrator device. Again, the story would be the same without this piece.

The third device is a subplot. The man called in to identify the violin, wants it for himself. He is deceptive about its origins until he finally must reveal its true identity. He exposes how the violin came to be red. And then, unable to resist the urge to own it, he steals it for his daughter. We know what happens to those who own the red violin.

These three devices create more of a sense of expectation and unity to the story, but they could easily be replaced by some other element. They aren't really part of the plot or of character motivation. These same roles could have been filled by the auctioneer, a musician at any time in history, a monk, the violin maker, the seer... none of these would affect the plot or character motivation.

Another interesting outcome of this story is that there is a minimal sense of resolution. Most stories come to an end and things are resolved. In this one, we get the sense of the violin continuing to make its way into the future, wreaking the same type of havoc on other's lives. It isn't a resolution that an audience appreciates. It is tragic.

One very unique feature of this movie is the use of subtitles. Over half of the picture is realistically spoken in three foreign languages: French, Germanic, and Italian. I missed much of the character's actions because I was busy reading subtitles. This makes the movie much more difficult to follow, and much less engrossing. It is a good rule of thumb that, unless the foreign language is essential to the story, it shouldn't be used.

I enjoyed the movie in the sense of watching a skilled writer craft a drama using various literary devices. But the tragedy of "tragedy" is the tragic results at the box office. Tragedies are small market movies at best. People like movies much better if there is a triumph of the human spirit at the end. Otherwise they say to their friends, "I'm not sure if I liked that movie."

- 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.

Wild Wild West, 1999, Director Barry Sonnenfeld. Writers: Brent Maddock, Steve Wilson, Jeffrey Price, Peter S. Seaman, Jim Thomas, John Thomas.

This is a fun story, and a good example of foreshadowing, but also a good example of a lack of story continuity. Usually story continuity is thought of as just applicable to the plot and subplot. But other elements in the story also benefit or suffer from continuity. For example, the general rule of thumb is to introduce all of your major characters in the first twenty to thirty minutes of the story. In this one we find out why. I left the theater feeling like I had seen half a movie. Even though the movie was fun, it could have been much better. This movie bears most of the marks of a contrived story.

What is a contrived story? One in which things just pop up as needed. The setting, characterization, and plot were never mapped out at the beginning (or too many writers worked on it in pieces). (I can't say for sure what happened to this story - I'm not privy to the development details.) So when a character needs something, it miraculously appears. In well developed stories, little is left to serendipity and the characters are the instruments for solving their own problems.

The story, developed along the same lines as the original television series, lends itself to a larger amount of surprise and spontaneity. But a little of that goes a long way.

Two of the characters could have made the story much better had they begun near the beginning and ended near the end. Colonel "BloodBath" McGrath (Ted Levine) is the first. He entered near the first of the story, was a good villain, and a final contention between him and the protagonists would have been good. There is a great deal of anticipation that works up, waiting for these climactic conflicts to occur. But Dr. Loveless the archevillain (Kevin Kline) bumps him off before the half-way mark in the story. We already well understand Dr. Loveless's murderous nature, so the murder serves no purpose to the story.

The story could support the villain's murder of a much lesser villain, but there are few lieutenant villains in the story. One excellent candidate was the man with the metal skin. Another popup character, he pops up during a fight scene at the climax of the movie. He is another very worthy opponent that we would have enjoyed anticipating in a final battle had he appeared near the beginning and not just at the end.

Even the James West (Will Smith) characterization seemed contrived. During one scene, James reveals that his parents had been killed in Dr. Loveless's massacre of a village. Had this been a real motivation, we would have seen passion in it instead of just a verbal note. It seemed to be something added to the story out of convenience.

And what was the purpose of Rita Escobar (Salma Hayek) in the story? This character seems to be just along for the ride and contributes nothing.

This story would have been much better had the popup characters been developed.

The plot in this story appears to be a series of scenes that are developed without much relation to the rest of the story, with a few exceptions. The exceptions:  The opening features a magnetic collar attracting a buzz saw blade that we anticipate that we will see again, and we do. And also near the beginning, Artemus Gordon (Kevin Kline) impersonates the President, a trick that he uses again near the end to free the President from a situation.

More typical of the plotting is the battle between the man of metal and James West. Wit obviously must triumph because West is no match physically for a man made of metal. When West is about to be shoved out the door of a giant metal spider, the metal man suddenly is electrocuted (?) by a cable on a steam (?) driven machine. This seems to be a purely serendipitous event. West is hanging out the door. What does he do? Let's put an electrical cable there. Foreshadowing this event by showing us the dangerous power cables, and then having West lure him to the door and into them, would have solved this problem.

We typically think of setting only as something that enhances the story by providing pleasing images. But to make a story visual, the action needs to interact with the environment. Plus the props that are used are also part of the overall setting. Although surprise is part of the mystique of this story, some things didn't work well. Dr. Loveless's and his wheel chair were amazing contraptions. Loveless, dissected at the waist, survived something not survivable until into the 1990s - if then. Then his wheel chair is a steam driven mechanized device which would require a lot of hardware by itself. But it is more than that. In the climactic battle with West, suddenly six enormous metal spidery legs unfold from the chair. I guess it was using compression software - it lost credibility and crossed over into fantasy. But then, the original TV series often crossed over into fantasy.

The poorest demonstration of visual writing is when West and Gordon first encounter the giant metal spider. It comes into view pounding up over a steep hill. Do West and Gordon run for survival, or cower down and wait for their final moment - visually written? No, they just turn their back to it and stand there looking away. Were they supposed to look brave here? I wonder if they would think to scream if they were thrown off a cliff. A giant leg pounds down directly behind Gordon, spraying dust, but they don't even wince. I guess the dust was supposed to make the scene visual.

This story was a collage of scenes with contrived elements that presented little continuity to the story, and as a result the story suffered. It was fun, but it could have been a lot more fun.

For more information on contrived stories, see Script Doctor:

Manipulated Or Contrived - Avoid Quick Fix Or Mechanical Solutions
For more information on visual writing, see:
What Is Visual Writing

- 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.

Instinct,1999, Director Jon Turteltaub. Inspired by the novel Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. Screenstory and screenplay by Gerald DePego.

"The more I know about men, the more I like my dog." This isn't from the movie, but it is one of those modern popular slurs which fit. Which one of us has not looked at the insanity around us and wanted to run like the wind for some isolated place where insanity isn't the norm? Primatologist Ethan Powell (Anthony Hopkins) took it to the extreme, but he thought that he was the sane one. This is a good example of a story which does a good job of exploring a theme in life - freedom.

Researchers do a lot of things in pursuit of science that a lot of us wouldn't even think of doing. For example, anthropologist Thor Hyerdahl, freshly married in the early part of this century, took his new wife to settle in paradise - a remote island with minimal civilization and perfect weather. He is better known for his exploration of Easter Island and Kon Tiki - which was his unique contribution to the science of how ancient man migrated to and populated distant places. He built a raft and actually sailed it across the ocean. Obviously he didn't stay in paradise. Paradise comes complete with diseases and injuries, but lacks medical care and many of the other niceties of modern insane places. Other scientists spend years living among some of the more unique and primitive cultures in our world in hopes of broadening mankind's knowledge about ourselves. Others spend days that total to years in the bush, observing animals in hopes of learning more about their role in our environment.

Some might question the credibility of the Instinct story. Could something like this actually happen? But against the backdrop of what other anthropologists and primatologists actually do, the answer doesn't seem so strange. What did happen in the story? Ethan Powell, a not very social person, spent considerable time in the wild bush observing guerrillas, hoping to understand their habits better. On one of his extended stays in the wild, he found himself accepted into the guerrillas family. Captivated, he spent longer and longer hours with them, began spending the night, and ultimately remained with them, leaving his own culture behind. (Personally, having spent a couple of years in a foreign culture which had few modern advantages, I can understand the transition.)

Are we ever truly free? the story asks. We can build walls around our homes, we can escape quickly in fast cars, and we can sail off to paradise - but are we free? No. We reappear for the medicine, or power, or fine things, and to get these things we compromise our freedom.

In this character driven story, Ethan was trapped in failed relationships at home which prevented him from seeing beyond his own problems. He had to completely escape this world by literally living with guerrillas, to find his answer. When he had come full circle and the relationship with his daughter was withheld from him by prison bars, he found that he would have to compromise with abuse by others to get the relationship, or he could protect others for the answer he had found. In the prison, the psychotic inmates were much like the family of guerrillas he had protected from predators.

This story is a good example of a character driven story which takes a deep look at certain themes, and does so by taking it all to extremes. The extremes are: Ethan lived with the guerrillas, he kills two men, he doesn't talk to anyone, he refuses to see his wife and daughter, and he is locked up with psychotic criminals. By taking things to extremes, (or pushing things to their logical limits) the writer is able to expose what is at the heart of the human condition - and creates a terrific story.

- 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.

The Mummy, 1999, Director: Stephen Sommers. Screen story writers: Stephen Sommers, LLoyd Fonvielle, and Kevin Jarre. Screenplay: Stephen Sommers.

"I'm proud of what I am, I'm a librarian." Another memorable movie line.

A ship sank in this movie, and there was a romance, so I suppose we should compare it to Titanic. The most important thing I can say about this movie that we can learn from is that it is not Titanic, and it is not Indiana Jones. I really liked the Indiana Jones series, and I really liked The Mummy. But once again I hear reviewers comparing a film to previous films - this one to Indiana Jones - and checking off items as if from a chart drawn from someone's presumed epitomy of action/adventure movies, Indiana Jones. The entire time that I watched the movie, I never once compared it to the Indiana Jones series, and I never once cared. I was too busy being entertained. I have to ask why the reviewers should care, and even rate a movie based on former movies of another generation?

The other point about this not being Indiana Jones is that the movie is not a remake of Indiana Jones, thankfully it is original. The plot is as old as Egypt, (and this is a remake of the 1932 film) but that doesn't make it any less captivating. The setting is about the same as all movies about mummies and Egypt, but that doesn't make it any less appealing. What is unique is the characters and their actions. I can't think of another movie in which a leading character (Rachel Weisz, played by Evelyn Carnarvon) says, "I'm proud of what I am, I'm a librarian." The protagonist (Brendan Fraser, played by Rick O'Connell) filled his role well, and his lines were often humorous. The main villain (Imhotep, played by Arnold Vosloo) was ominously and "awe-fully" quiet and very well drawn. The supporting villain (Beni, played by Kevin J. O'Connor) was also humorous, but well drawn so that he deserved his ending. The special effects were seamless, and very well done. I particularly enjoyed the scene in which Imhotep's regenerating flesh temporarily fades and the scarab climbs out and in.

So even though a ship sank in this movie and there was a romance, it wasn't Titanic. And I agree with the critics, it definitely wasn't Indiana Jones.
- Scott

For more on writing original storylines, see:

Originality: Stretch Your Writing Skills

Originality: Outrun Tired, Predictable Storylines

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.

Entrapment, 1999, Director: Jon Amiel. Writers: William Broyles, Ronald Bass

This movie is fun to toy with, mentally going over the possible ways that it could have been developed that wouldn't have changed a thing. The two excellent plot twists help you realize that character motivation can be very complex even in a plot driven movie. It is also a good example of using plot twists to create an excellent story.

The beginning opens with a spectacular cat-burglary in a skyscraper. Switch to the insurance company. Gin Baker (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is an investigator for the company. She recognizes the mode of operation and wants to go over the guy - trap Mac (Sean Connery). She goes undercover and they become a team. They like the looks of each other, but professionalism keeps them apart. Then Mac discovers that Gin works for the insurance company. He is drowning her until she gives Mac and the audience the revelation that she was the cat-burglar.

Near the end, after a spectacular burglary in another high-rise, Mac turns Gin over to the police. He had been cooperating with them the entire time. In fact, he had entrapped her. Well, I've spoiled the plot twists, but I won't give away the ending.

The two plot twists are completely unexpected, but when they happen they are completely believable. They weren't just the turn of the writer's pen; there are events in the storyline from the beginning that are seen clearly when the truth is revealed. But these are cleverly disguised from the audience and never revealed by the characters. These are excellent examples of using plot twists.

The simple concept: Two clever thieves trap each other, one betrays the other, they save each other, and end up getting each other.

The story was more interesting because of the plot twists, but this is a dance that could have several variations. If their roles had been straightforward, she might have fallen in love with him and saved him from the police. This would have been typical of the romantic era (and James bond), but this is the nineties so Gin can be a daring catburglar, too. He might have been the only one entrapping someone, and fallen in love with her so he doesn't turn her over to the police. But this is the nineties, and men protecting women isn't in vogue. Or another story - the insurance and police were never involved - they both have been trying to find each other by trapping each other, but neither knows the other's plan. But they are too competitive. Finally they both plan to betray each other to get rid of each other, but end up saving each other...

All of these variations, and many more, could have been superimposed on the naked plot, because this is a plot driven 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.

The Matrix, 1999, Directors and Writers: Andy and Larry Wachowski.

(definitions pending)

"Why didn't I choose the blue pill?" This is destined to become a proverbial and oft-repeated line, especially with reference to the paths we choose in life. If writers write the story well, we know why the character chose the blue pill - it's called motivation. In this story, Neo (Keanu reeves) suspects that something is wrong with life and he wants to fix it. The blue pill represents complacency and acceptance of the way things are.

I watched this movie from three seats back, looking up at a 45 degree angle, dwarfed by the screen that stretched in front of me. It was a good warped and overwhelming angle from which to view the terrific special affects and the surreal environment.

This movie is a good example of two things. One is the uniqueness of it. Two is that it is the ultimate "fish out of water" story. What is a fish out of water story? It is a story in which a character is placed in an environment that he isn't accustomed to. An example is Analyze This. In Analyze This, a mafia type finds himself in a very different environment: he has a personal problem and goes to see a psychiatrist. He is not accustomed to showing weakness, and is always the boss. The psychiatrist is not accustomed to treating mafia type people or being in their environment. Both are fish out of water. Both adapt and both change.

In this movie, Neo is placed in a totally unique and incomprehensible environment. The reality that he has always known was really an illusion. The world is actually a decaying pile of debris, not the glittering place that they experience it as. So, he can reenter the illusion with his new knowledge and bend the environment to his needs, if he can learn to control it.

This environment and this story blends the metaphysical with virtual reality and reality. It is similar to a Kung Fu master overcoming the physical world. It is kind of like a Kung Fu master meets video game, meets reality, and escapes illusion. It is also a bit like a spiritual master sees through the illusion of reality to the spiritual world beyond, and learns to control it.

The story develops about the same as most action stories. In part one, at first Neo is torn between ignoring the problem and encountering it. Finally he decides to face the problem. In part two, Neo confidently goes forward and like a computer game and like martial arts training, he becomes a master and confronts greater and greater challenges. Drawing to a climax, Neo must sacrifice himself to rescue another, then in a quick series of successive rounds he confronts the "machines." After several rounds, he is lying on the floor about to be crushed or shot. He finally "gets it" and can completely control his environment, and he destroys a machine. He is a fish out of water who, in a triumph of the human spirit, conquers or transcends his environment and his own abilities.

In some ways, because the story is similar to other stories, much of the plot is a bit predictable. In most stories, predictability would kill the story. But in this one it doesn't make any difference because the story environment and special effects are so unique, and there are a couple of good plot twists in the story. In one twist, the Oracle tells him that he is not "the one," who will save them. In another twist, an insider wants to get back to a seemingly pampered existence, and becomes a traitor and nearly gets them all killed.

This is a well developed story with a lot of unique elements, yet it has similarities to other stories and is a little predictable. Just like in Gloria, we saw trashy settings, and just like in Titanic, there was a ship that might sink, and a couple fell in love...  It is a good example of how a story can be similar to others but still have the unique qualities that make it captivating and a good seller.

- Scott

For more on writing original storylines, see:

Originality: Stretch Your Writing Skills

Originality: Outrun Tired, Predictable Storylines

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.

October Sky, 1999, Director: Joe Johnston. Screenplay by Lewis Colick.

(In progress - words will be highlighted for meaning.)

I created my first and only rocket at the age of thirteen. I set it off in an old shed. There ensued about ten seconds of complete mayhem as the rocket riccocheted off the ceiling, floor, and every wall until it finally ran out of fuel. I left the shed miraculously unharmed and successful. I guess that satisfied my curiosity about rockets, and if it hadn't I eventually would have blown up myself or the shed. But for some people, rockets are a passion and a dream. This story is about reaching for your dreams. It's a true story. It's a story in which art truly mimics life and life mimics art.

When Homer (Jake Gyllenhaal) sees the first satellite (Sputnik), he is captivated. All he can think about is how to make a rocket that will put things into space. But in Coalwood, West Virginia, a town in which the only industry, the homes, and the people's souls are all owned by the mining company, Homer's dream is an impossible dream. The only thing that can make it worse is if Homer's father is the mine superintendent and wants him to follow in his footsteps and can't see any value in rocketry. Of course it is worse.

Real life seldom follows the architecture of a good story, but this one does. Homer has many obstacles to face, and with his determination and enthusiasm he manages to enlist the support of others. First, he is isolated from knowledge. The local library has no information on rockets, and no one in town is interested. And he is no genius when it comes to math, which is the notorious qualification for being a rocket scientist. So he picks the brain of the school nerd. His teacher sees his interest is real and gets him resources. He scavenges for parts. He builds his first rocket.

But his first misadventure with a rocket brings him to his second obstacle - his father bans him from the mine site, the only open area around, and opposes any more of his rocketry. And the machinist who assisted him is sentenced to the mines. But Homer and his friends set up a launch pad even though they have to hike eight miles to use it.

Their rocketry experiments become popular with the townspeople, but they soon get blamed for a local forest fire. They are handcuffed at school and taken to jail. But that isn't bad enough - an accident in the mine not only kills the machinist, it also injures Homer's father. Now Homer is not only the pyrotechnic villain, he feels he is the cause of his uncle's death, and he keenly feels the demand that he support his family. At this low point he leaves school to work in the mines. And with that event, even his teacher turns away from him.

You can't kill a dream - if you can't convert it to something else, it either drives you, or haunts you in defeat, or makes you bitter. As Homer works in the mines day after day, the dream will not leave him and he begins taking his rocketry book into the mine and studies and figures. He becomes determined to locate the missing rocket that is blamed for the forest fire. Mathematically they calculate the trajectory of the rocket and locate it. They were not the cause of the fire - none of their rockets ever went that far. Homer is accepted back into school on the basis of his math calculations and proof of non-guilt.

The impossible now comes true - Homer is entered in the science fair where he becomes the national winner, and he gets a college scholarship. He is no longer trapped in a mining town. In real life, Homer goes on to work at NASA where he follows his dream for twenty years.

I don't believe in writing by formula, but there are certain things that make for good stories, ones that audiences appreciate. This story is a good example of a good story with excellent structure, and amazingly it comes from real life. See the references below for more information.

Near my computer desk where I write is a card from my wife that says, "Follow your dreams." On a wall in my office is a picture of a man doing a horizontal hand stand off the side of a cliff to where he has climbed via a steep vertical rock face with only his hands and feet. At the bottom of the picture it says, "Don't let your fear get in the way of your dreams." It is important to me, as it is to most people, to keep reaching for goals which challenge you to reach greater heights. I follow my dreams every day.

In the series The Human Condition, I have been writing about finding meaning and applying that to characters, or in a sense finding your dream. The most recent article asks how much control we have over our lives, and gives real life examples from other's lives. See Life Stories, Part 1.

For more information on story structure, see Five Power Points in Stories.

For a similar story, and comments on structure, see the writing example Prom Date.

- 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.

Payback,1999, Director: Brian Helgeland. Screenwriter: Brian Helgeland

Where's the good guy in this story? Which one is the bad guy? When the good guy does things that are wrong, like robbery and murder, is he still the good guy? When it comes to movies, do our minds go into a state of absolute existential relativism so there is no distinction between good and bad?

In this movie, Porter (Mel Gibson) robs some other crime figures of $140,000.00, which he is supposed to split with hisaccomplice. But his wife shoots him, and his accomplice and his wife leave him for dead. We get a clue that there might be something worth saving in Porter when he returns months later to his wife and tries to get her off drugs. Or maybe he is like a miniature schnauzer - just too dumb to know the other dog is bigger. Since he goes up against the mob to get his $70,000.00 back, it may be he is BWOB (born without a brain). On the flip side, maybe we're again seeing something good in this guy - he isn't greedy - he only wants his $70,000.00 that he pirated, no more than that.

Later, in search of his $70,000.00, he keeps running into his accomplice, who just as often tries to kill him or get him killed. So what is this hapless guy going to do? call the police and explain the entire sordid story to a judge? Oh, woe, alas and alak,drat, the trials of being crooked. So he murders the guy. So the protagonist is both a robber and a murderer. Gotta' love him.

Of course this isn't the first or last movie to blur the line between good and evil. For example, in the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the line is frequently crossed. (It will be interesting to see what happens next week (Tues. Feb. 16, 1999) to the other slayer, who just killed a real person.) Vampires are evil - they destroy peoples lives, chiefly by killing them, but sometimes by turning them into evil vampires. But the protagonist, Buffy, is in love with a vampire (Angel) who is trying to reform. All the other characters hate him for his hundreds of years of destroying lives - but we manage to like him. (I guess I'm not jaded enough to think people are irredeemable - but if it was my daughter I don't think I would approve of a marriage.) In preceding episodes, two regularly appearing vampires (a couple) reveal a distinctly human side. They end up cooperating with the good guys like a CIA operation or a police informant - and for purely selfish reasons. They get advice on relationships and give advice on relationships. They are kind of likeable.

I think we see from these stories the capacity of humans to forgive and forget - or at least to overlook the bad, if we can see human qualities in someone. We are accustomed to living with imperfection and even evil in others. There is a little bad in the best of us, and a little good in the worst of us, and most of use are struggling inbetween. If we weren't able to tolerate the bad in others, then we wouldn't be able to live together at all. The recent real life trend of murder victims' families meeting with the convicted killer and finding some reconciliation shows that both the killer and the victims' families can find some humanity in each other - we're not objects, not just inhuman recipients of other's expressed feeling and actions. We are human beings.

If the stories are relativistic, it's because we have this capacity to see humans as real people despite their flaws, and we tolerate or help them. But in real life, killers get executed, even if the families get reconciled.

What we can learn from Payback is that characters not only can have flaws, they can be almost like the bad guys. To identify with a protagonist like this, we need to see a spark of humanity in him, even if it is only good looks.

- Scott

Also see, Making dull characters Sparkle.

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.

Gloria, 1999,  Sidney Lumet, Director; Steven Antin, Writer

How do you write a good story when the reviewers want to pigeonhole every story, saying yours is like this or that story, and it is set again in this setting, and it's not strictly action genre, but not crime, yet not drama, so it must be... a mongrel? The public does get tired of seeing some story devices over and over, but it isn't possible to write a story in which all elements are totally unique. So, Damn the parrots, full speed ahead - go ahead and write a good story and let the viewing public speak for itself.

Gloria is an example of two things done well. The character Gloria (Sharon Stone) consistently stays in character, and the story is well balanced - reviewers aside.

Gloria stays consistently in character throughout the story. She is not "a broad" one minute and a "June Cleaver mom" the next. She is a person who is trying to change and finding it difficult. She is her past, and her past is determined to keep her. Gloria was promised money to take the rap for her boyfriend, so she spent a few years in prison. Inside, she apparently sees her boyfriend for what he really is and decides not to rejoin him. Violating parole, she goes to him to get her money. But he is characteristically manipulative and selfish, and won't give her the money.

Gloria sticks up for herself and leaves anyway, but in the elevator - staying in character - with no money and no place to go she crumbles and goes back in. In the apartment, she overhears that they are going to kill a kid (Jack Nunez, played by Bobby Cannavale) they have abducted. Her maternal instincts take over and she wrests the kid from them and goes on the run. But she isn't the nurturing type and she continually tries to get rid of the kid. But her boyfriend and his men are chasing them and trying to kill them both. Alone, struggling, desperate, she even calls her former boyfriend to ask him what to do with the kid. In one amusing scene, she tells the kid what he has to look forward to in life - in character - from "a broad's" point of view.

Still trying to avoid responsibility for the kid, she succeeds in getting a church operated boy's school to take him. After placing him, she has several changes of mind, but her transformation has progressed to the point that she wants to be a mother to the kid - character change. But does she return and explain it to the church officials? No, she simply steals him away from them - right in character to the end.

How do you balance a story? What is this movie about - crime, action, drama? There is some of each in the movie. With all of these people chasing Gloria and the kid and trying to kill them, why isn't this an "action" movie? First, the name is your first clue that this isn't an action movie or a crime movie. Does Gloria sound like Lethal Weapon, or Die Hard, or even, The Net ? No, it kind of sounds like a film about a woman. And while there is enough action in the movie to keep it moving and interesting, it isn't about crime. The crime in the movie is a subplot - the plot seems to be about Gloria. Will she go back to her former lover who got her put in jail? Will her motherly instincts come through enough to save the kid? Will she have the courage to outwit the crime world for herself and the kid? Will she go back to living with criminals? Will she stay "a broad?"

This was basically a story about a woman who is gaining strength and maturity. The crime, the action, and the kid are just recurring elements that help her mature - they are the obstacles in the story, and they could easily be replaced by some other obstacles. But these particular obstacles help make the story interesting as they help develop the plot. They make the story very balanced to keep the interest level up so that it doesn't get bogged down with dialogue, inner reflection, or slow moving drama.

- 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.

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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