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Critiques Page 7

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.

Pitch Black  Director: David Twohy. Writers: Jim Wheat, Ken Wheat, David Twohy.

I enjoyed this movie. I often found myself captivated and twisting in my seat. Tip of the hat to a good creative team. This movie, in the Sci-fi horror-thriller genre, is an example of some really good things. And there were some things that could have been improved. The things needing improvement get to the heart of the question, "What is the writer trying to capture in the story and put on screen?" The story has, in my opinion, some significant problems with structure, characterization, and dialogue - not so much that it destroys the story (or the box office, I hope) but it hurts it.

The special effects in this movie were state-of-the-art, and superlative. The opening is a well done special effects bonanza in which the space ship is damaged in space, killing the captain and part of the crew, and then jettisons sections and breaks up as it plummets through the atmosphere to a crash landing. The meteorite impacts that begin the disaster were both realistic and terrifying. But it is during this destruction sequence where the worst dramatizing also occurs.

I found that during the entire destruction sequence, I was often disoriented. The pictures on the screen were trying desparately to tell me a story, but I missed it. Things happened, but I had not been set up for any of them to have any meaning. And sometimes the lines in this sequence, and in other places in the movie, didn't have sufficient clarity to understand what was said. So at the end of this sequence I had a jumbled series of pictures and events in my mind.  

What is it, exactly, that a writer is trying to capture? Drama. He isn't trying to capture linear time and events in which one event follows another in exact measure. Time is compressed, broken, and even warped in a story. He isn't trying to capture a "moment" in time. Moments have to be preceded by something - set up so that the action has meaning. He isn't trying to capture a scene into which all the dramatic action must be somehow stuffed. Scenes are preceded by other scenes which prepare for the action to follow them. So what a writer is trying to capture is a piece of drama that is set up by events that precede it, and most likely sets up events that follow it. In this case, the drama of the crash was the focus instead of the unfolding story among the characters. And part of this drama is dialogue. Both the continuity of the drama, and the dialogue were damaged by meteorites.

My wife would probably say that I'm just getting old and losing my hearing and mind. She might be right. But in a state-of-the-art theater, with no background noise, sound blaring, I often couldn't decipher some of the dialogue. Dialogue is created by the character's reactions to each other and to events and to situations, and carries with it meaning and character motivation. If the dialogue can't be understood, then for all practical purposes it doesn't exist and the part of the story carried by the dialogue doesn't get told. That scene can just be cut out and discarded - it's just confusing. So if a line is poorly written, or background sound covers it up, or the actor doesn't speak distinctly, the scene is lost and the entire story suffers. I don't know what obscured the dialogue in this movie - it needs some dubbing done. Watch Mel Gibson or Arnold Schwartzeneger in a movie - every line is stated clearly and distinctly no matter what the situation. 

The ending was a twist and surprise - nice touch to the story structure.

 The characterization was generally very good. I liked the surprises, which I won't spoil by mentioning them. There is change in the characters, or at least their true "character" is revealed, which is something for a horror movie. The "villain" stays true to his character to the end, but shows that he isn't all bad. The only character inconsistency that I saw was that Fry (Rahda Mitchell) went into the cave alone to see what had happened to one person. That was not believable that she would or that they would permit her to do that.

So if you watch this movie, try to remember the events in the crash scenes and ask yourself what you would have done differently to make the dramatic continuity better. And how would you have introduced the monsters without sending Fry into an unknown cave?

Despite the inevitable useless comparisons to ALIEN (there was a space ship, a female heroine, and monsters) and Titanic (the ship went down and hardly anyone survived), it was a really fun movie.

- Scott

Pitch Black Web site:  

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

The Whole Nine Yards   Director: Jonathan Lynn. Writer: Mitchell Kapner.

This movie isn't serious literature, it's just light fun - a farce. It's entertaining. This movie is a fun ride (depending on taste) and following are the reasons why:

  • It is just a little "over the top."
  • It has a good blend of comedic elements.
  • It is full of surprises.

Dark comedy? Death is funny? Gallows humor? I think that part of being human is learning to laugh in the face of death. It is a sure sign that one has come to grips with life. Being paralyzed in spirit by fear of death might be a sign that one has not yet come to grips with life, and is taking everything far too seriously. A good sense of humor helps one cope. (Does three "ones" in a paragraph make one hopelessly archaic and stilted?)

This is a movie about hit men and a mafia hit on one of their own. It could have been a drama or an action movie, but it was written as a comedy. It's a little over the top because of the coincidences in it. After all, how many people in this world encounter even one hit man. But three? See the movie and count them. Yet because the movie is a comedy and it is engaging, I think we are willing to continue to "suspend disbelief" just this once (until the good next movie).

There is a good blend of comedic situations and slapstick (slapstick is not my favorite element) in this movie. Even Jimmy Tudeski's (Bruce Willis) attitude about his wife is hilarious - he is going to kill her for the money, but he is going to kill someone else for sleeping with her. One is business, one is personal. And having Michael Clarke Duncan (who played Jimmy Figs) in a story has to heighten the comedy (or drama) due to his size and the absurdity of encountering him in any situation. Comedic attitudes, comedic figures, comedic situations, and lightly peppered with slapstick. Now that's funny.  

It's one of those serpentine plots that you are never really certain when it is done unraveling, although most of the time you can guess that no one is playing it straight. I won't unravel the plot here and destroy the fun for anyone, but it has more twists than a rollercoaster.

This movie was directed by Jonathan Lynn who also directed Sargeant Bilco and the hilarious My Cousin Vinny. Whether it is your kind of comedy or not for entertainment, if you want to write comedy, go see this one and follow the bouncing ball.   

- Scott

The Whole Nine Yards Web site: .

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

The Hurricane   Director: Norman Jewison. Screenplay: Armyan Bernstein and Dan Gordon.

By the year 2000, half of death row inmates in Illinois had had their convictions thrown out. People who were convicted to die were proved innocent and set free. Most of them were plainly innocent - victims of monster legal systems with huge appetites for convictions. They were scapegoats for an ineffectual system with no time or inclination for proving innocence or guilt - only time for getting convictions at any cost. Often it is simply the result of racial bias - ruining the lives of "expendable" people because they aren't viewed as human or as deserving as the others.

Sometimes it is a combination of hatred, corrupt systems, personal agendas, and reckless inhumanity. This is what landed on Hurricane Carter. And to make it worse, for most people falsely accused and convicted, nobody cares. In an abstract way people care, but they don't have the resources, either in strong character or in material assets, to stay the long-suffering course of seeing someone through the system to freedom. Luckily Hurricane was spared the death penalty. Oh, The Hurricaneis inspired by the true story in New Jersey.

This is the kind of quality story that I have come to expect from Director Norman Jewison. It is a story that makes you feel the good things in people's lives, and their pain as they are separated from those things. It shows the repercussions of the evil that people do... and the good. 

On the one hand, this is the story of the bigotry and hatred that lies in the hearts of people - people who go on to become powerful public "servants" who destroy other people's lives. But it is also the story of the goodness in other people's hearts that reaches out to correct injustice and put other's lives together again.

But it is also a third story. Hurricane had been poisoned by the things that happened to him - poisoned into believing that all whites are as wicked as the ones who falsely imprisoned him. He had become as bigoted as they. It is the story of how he changes, and what makes him change - character change and growth, more hallmarks of good storytelling.

This is a wonderful example of gripping, high-stakes, stories that engage the viewer from the beginning and don't turn loose until the story is finished. It is what I call a "high impact" story. It isn't an action movie, or filled with gunshots and violence. There are no steamy sex scenes, no prison torture, no shocking grotesque sights... not even special effects, to speak of. It isn't even the threat of death that keeps us involved - it is the loss of living - the waste of a human life left to stagnate in a cramped, bare concrete and metal cell, and the terror of a lifeless, inhumane existence. It is a superb film to study and learn from about engaging the audience.    

This well written story also includes excellent characterization, showing how Hurricane managed to quell his own appetite for life in order to endure the years of deprivation.

At the risk of injudiciously criticizing a great work by great people, there was one thing that might possibly have been improved in the movie. I usually warn against using flashbacks, even though I like them as a literary device. Flashbacks can take away from the momentum of the story - they can rob it of dramatic energy. Just like now, I waited until this point in the critique to say that Rubin “Hurricane” Carter was played by Denzel Washington, because I didn't want to interject unnecessary verbiage and sap the power from the preceding paragraphs, like I just did from this one.

And now, back to our comments about flashbacks. This is a complex story that develops both a plot and subplot simultaneously from the first by using flashbacks and time juxtapositions. It is the story of Hurricane and how he landed in prison, and in another era the story of a young man in Canada who ultimately leads a group to win Hurricane's freedom. Hurricane's story up until his imprisonment is told primarily in flashbacks. The young man's story is primarily linear.

This development is complex enough, but add to that the changes in time and place during the lives of both of these two men and you have major time warp problems. All of this was handled "artfully and skillfully." The story was engaging enough that it withstood the strain, and perhaps could not have been done differently. It probably would not have worked as a linear story - that is, to write the story of Hurricane until he was in prison, and then write the story of the young man, Lesra Martin (Vicellous (VI) Reon Shannon) until he helps free Hurricane. That would have been a major interruption in Hurricane's story. It takes a talent like Jewison to weave stories together this way and make it work. Today's sophisticated viewing audience "gets it," but I still think that the flashbacks rob the storyline of some energy.  

I have to add that villain Leon Friedman (Harris Yulin) was written and played so well that I wanted to meet him behind the theater... and ... well, seek justice.

This story is enough to make one take note of the injustice that eats at the heart of our system of justice and produces results like 50% wrongful death penalty convictions, and take action.   

The Hurricane Web site:

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

Man on the Moon Director: Milos Forman. Writer: Scott Alexander and larry Karaszewski

Where's the plot?!!! Where's the storyline?!!! What did I go to see this movie for - I could have stayed home and watched CNN headline news repeat itself for two hours, or the Weather Channel for crying out loud. Who was telling this story, anyway? You get three choices - Andy Kaufman, his ghost, or the myth he left behind? Take your choice. Or maybe it was that repugnant lounge lizard, Tony Clifton!

Now that's funny! Or according to Andy Kaufman, it is lines like these that make people laugh. Maybe he is right, I have walked down the streets of New York City and acquired my own personal heckler who walked along beside me in the street, the gutter, the sidewalk, like a leprechaun, hurling insult after insult. He had not one nice remark, but he made me laugh. Only in New York - you expect the outrageous there.

Andy, personified by Jim Carrey, begged the question, "What is funny?" He stretched to find the ultimate unexpected action and the absurd. Andy liked stunts. He seemed to love the elements of surprise, the unexpected, and people totally caught off guard. Sometimes it wasn't for a laugh - sometimes it was for a roller-coaster ride of emotion as someone seemed to die during an act, and moments later he mockingly brought her back to life. Andy refused to wear the name, stand-up comedian. He was an entertainer. He never seemed to quite know how to classify himself - he just kept walking outside the lines.

Professional wrestling can be entertaining - it is an act - all showmanship. Andy wrestled women, and he fit right in. And what Andy did was almost always entertaining, even funny, because of one thing. The audience came with the expectation that he would be entertaining and funny. I'm not sure he always understood this distinction, because it appears he would think up pranks that only he and his writer would laugh at. But without this warped sense of humor, could he have ever done what he did? Andy was unique and always different. But he apparently thought that they came to see him do something even more bizarre and extreme than his previous act. Perhaps they did. He pushed entertaining and funny to their limits. By probing the limits, he helped us understand what is funny, and opened new paths for others. Perhaps if he taught us nothing else, he taught us that to entertain you must engage your audience. Sometimes that in itself is a hard lesson, and lesson enough.

So what about the plot and the storyline in the movie? You paid your seven bucks, you laughed, you cried, you saw the spirit of Andy Kaufman, what more do you want - to be a movie critic? Ok, this movie came to praise Andy Kaufman, a comic genius; and a fine tribute it was. This was a character study with the capacity to entertain an audience for an entire movie. And it took great material and a comic genius to pull it off.  

- Scott

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


Being John Malkovich  Director: Spike Jonze. Writer: Charlie Kaufman

Heh, heh! Nothing is more comical and bizarre than real life, and in the characterization in this movie, real life was caught red handed. While finding a physical portal into someone's mind is pure fantasy, it is certainly a metaphor for those trying to live vicariously through others. It seems that the more bizarre that things get in this movie, the more accurately they portray what is - in symbols.

These things didn't dawn on me during the movie - I was captivated. Symbols and deep thoughts shouldn't jump out at you during a story - it's the mark of good writing when you are captivated by a story and it stays with you enough that you reflect on it later. That's the kind of story that becomes a classic - like One Flew Over the Cukoos Nest, Clockwork Orange, Fahrenheit 459, and Catch 22. These titles and themes I still remember, instead of forgetting in a week.

The protagonist in this story, Craig Schwartz (John Cusack), knew exactly what he wanted. He loved being a puppeteer. All he wanted was to be the greatest puppeteer. But oddly enough, he seemed to live life vicariously through his puppets. So frustrated was he in his life that it was only through his puppets that he seemed to gain any semblance of satisfaction - even sexually.   

But did being a puppeteer have any real meaning for Craig? When he suddenly finds himself peering out at the world through another person's eyes, he finds it a defining moment for himself - his entire life is changed. Craig's anchor seemed to be skimming bottom.

When Craig manages to totally take over John, he fulfills his life's ambition and becomes a great puppeteer. He leverages John's fame and success into his own triumph.

Craig's business partner and sexual obsession, Maxine (Catherine Keener), has her own brand of living vicariously. It is only other's success that she is interested in having. When she learns that Craig's aspirations are to be a puppeteer, her interest vanishes in the same sentence.

Craig's significant other, Lottie (Cameron Diaz), is so conflicted from assigning the whole of her life to the psychotherapeutic morass, that she neither knows who she is, nor how to be a person - she associates with a host of animals whose minds are as blank as her own. What would happen if you erased from a person's mind, everything that orients that person? Having no anchor of any kind, Lottie also finds peering through another's eyes to be defining. She discovers that she wants to be a John instead of a Lottie. She likes being a man, and finds women attractive. Finally a path forward for this poor soul, even if it is doomed.

So, both Craig and Lottie want John's body... literally. And Maxine wants them both, off and on, in or out of John. And standing in the wings is a host of parasites that must have John just to survive. It's a deliciously wicked little mess that they all find themselves in, and it makes a captivating movie.

This is a good example of originality, yet I have met so many people just like the people in this story. They say that life is too strange to be believed, and daily life is too boring, but real life plays well if we can just figure out how to disguise it as fantasy, drama, comedy, action... 

- Scott

For more on writing original storylines, see:

For more on characterization, see:

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


American Beauty    Director: Sam Mendes. Writer: Alan Ball.

This movie is interesting to examine from both the standpoint of character and structure - especially structure. It is also a good example of the subplot helping develop the plot. On the downside, in some ways, the story is too much like real life, in that the family situation is too common. The story had a feel that it wasn't quite "big enough" for the big screen, in that it wasn't quite unique enough - great portrayal of a mid-life crisis, but not exactly big screen material. Despite the downside, there were a lot of great things in this movie.

This movie has similarities to The Red Violin, and some important differences. In The Red Violin, the violin destroyed everyone that it touched. The violin seemed to be a fatal flaw that brought out fatal flaws in its owners. Unlike The Red Violin, American Beauty isn't quite a tragedy - it's not even a dark comedy. The circumstances in the story have a tragic quality for all of the characters, and the protagonist dies in the end, but in the process he perhaps rediscovers himself. So something good supposedly came out of the protagonist's experience, as he affirms from beyond the grave.

In the story, Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is going through a mid-life crisis. These crises occur because people either ignore, or are prevented from, pursuing interests and directions that are critical to their being. This was well portrayed in the story. People reaching a crisis finally reach a point of paralysis - they can't continue going in the direction that they are going and something has to change. Lester's crisis is causing the disintegration of his family. Intimacy has disappeared from he and Carolyn's (Annette Bening) relationship, so they are drifting apart. He has been completely uninvolved in his daughter Jane's (thora Birch) life, so his daughter now hates him.

In a desperate attempt to rediscover himself, he does the usual mid-life crisis things, such as returning to his youth, and looking for a different woman (he mistakenly blames his wife for his problems). Sex, drugs, and rock and roll. He goes looking for a young woman for sex (high school cheerleader, Angela (Mena Suvari)), starts smoking pot, pumping iron, trades his car for a sports car, and takes an irresponsible type job in place of the fourteen year job that he doesn't have the stomach to fight for to retain.

In a very nicely developed subplot that helps develop the main plot, Lester's neighbor Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper) on one side hates gays and is the abusive type. His neighbors on the other side are gay. At the end, the Colonel thinks that Lester has corrupted his son in a gay relationship, and shoots him. Thus the darkness - Lester forwarns us that he dies, and this presents us with both mystery and suspense. Who is going to kill Lester, and when? Suspicion is thrown on his wife, his daughter, the Colonel, and the Colonel's son Ricky (Wes Bentley). This was also nicely done.   

This story could easily have been developed several ways with very few changes, instead of having a dark ending. Lester's shooting wasn't inherent to the plot. It is only in the ending scenes when the Colonel observes Lester with Ricky, that Lester is mistaken as corrupting the neighbor's son. The Colonel could have observed Lester and Ricky involved in any number of things through the window, and each would have brought a different outcome to the story. This was the turning point in the story which determined what kind of story it would be.

What if the Colonel sees them passing drugs and chases after them in a rage - at which point Carolyn arrives, blinded by tears and the rain, and runs over the Colonel as he runs across the road? Perhaps also striking Lester and putting his life in peril. The story is now told from the hospital bed and now we have mystery and supense over who killed the Colonel. The story can be lifted from dark drama and transformed into a comedy, which it would have lent itself to very well - and probably more profitably at the box office, since the movie prefeature trivia says that 90% of moviegoers go to movies to laugh.

The most healthy part of the story, which I think would have made people enjoy it much more if it had been allowed to fully develop, came at the end when Lester was about to satisfy himself with Angela and discovers that she is a virgin. Suddenly she becomes human to him, not just a symbol of his own missing youth, and he is momentarily shaken back to humanity also. But that's all we know - what he discovered is locked inside him at death, and it isn't allowed to impact his life or his family, not to change it nor to heal it. Instead the story is transformed at his point into darkness. While it isn't good to try to tell life's answers, it is good to tell the answer that the character found for himself, or at least show the impact in his life. I left the theater feeling cheated.   

 - 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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