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Critiques Page 8

Copyright 1999 - 2001 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.


Joe Somebody

Director: John Pasquin. Writer and Screenplay: John Scott Shepherd
Animation Director: Andy Jones. Visual Effects Director: Remo Balcells.

Joe Somebody

Writer John Scott Shepherd previously worked in advertising as a video and film producer. Vision/premise: "We all expect to be special, if not famous."

For more information on emotional distancing in stories, see: Emotional Distance

- Scott

If you would like to know the triumphs and the disasters in a script before several million are spent on filming it, plus suggestions, contact me at Primary Contact. or for more information on services, visit Services. It only costs a little to make a lot more at the box office.

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

Final Fantasy

Director: Hironobu Sakaguchi. Screenplay: Al Reinert and Jeff Vintar
Animation Director: Andy Jones. Visual Effects Director: Remo Balcells.

Final Fantasy having been born from a video game, seems to ask the question, "Is playing or watching a video game better?" In the movie, the main character, the young Dr. Aki Ross (voice by Ming Na) is on a mission to save earth after several years of invasion and domination by "Phantoms," alien creatures which kill by releasing your soul on contact or through a painful process of infestation. She needs to find eight unique life energies which when combined will cancel the life energies of the Phantoms, but within the military lurks the foe who may end up killing them and all of earth, General Hein (voice by James Woods). This may be the least of Dr. Aki's worries, as she too has been infected by the aliens and only finding these new energies buys her time from her own death. It is a race to see who kills her first... or if she saves the earth first.

The eyes have it in this movie. This story makes a promise at the beginning: There is a reflection in the eye of Dr. Aki of an object she is viewing. Nice work that seems to say, "Look how real I am." The promise is unfulfilled. Much of emotion is expressed through the eyes, but in two scenes Dr. Aki is unable to shed a tear. When her love sacrifices his life to save her, and then she is unable to shed a tear, that removes her from humanity. It's just a video game... "Oh, darn, he died... the game goes on, give me a moment to settle out and I'll try again."

Additionally, somehow we need to connect with Dr. Aki at the beginning of the movie. I didn't. We are told she "has a mission to save the earth if she can get there in time." OK, action film, my expectations are lowered for drama and emotion. But we know nothing of Dr. Aki unless we are video game enthusiasts who through many long hours of playing the role playing video game with her character, bring that "connection" baggage with us. Appealing only to this audience doesn't sound like a financial success factor to me. Further, I am not set up for her mission in advance (foreshadowing) so I don't know what her mission is. I don't care if she succeeds or if she lives or dies. I am emotionally unconnected until the story connects me, which it doesn't. When you play a video game, you are engaged with the action and it means something to you. But a movie is passive for the audience until the story does something to engage them with the action.

Film-makers have been removing actors from film since Steamboat Willie. The fact that actors are replaced by something else isn't new - what is new in this movie is that every bit of it is computer generated. That's a triumph. It was so well done that many times I was unaware that I was watching computer animation, and not real actors and sets. I suppose we will be seeing mostly short hair characters without beards since mimicking the action of real hair is so hard to do, and beards are even worse. There was only one person with long hair in this movie. But beyond creating pictures to create a movie is the ability to deliver an engaging story, and good performances that display emotion - that is to reveal the drama and accompanying emotion cinematically. This is what to me currently separates a video game based computer animation from a traditional movie. The computer animators must be equal to the best writers and actors to deliver that kind of performance. This film failed in two respects. First it didn't form an emotional bond in the beginning minutes of the film (story problem), and second the animated characters failed to deliver emotionally (actor animation problem).

The goal of this film was to create computer generated (CGI) images that are so superior that they can't be distinguished from real images. Instead of representational or even idealized images which only suggest what is real, as in other animations (which are more of a Fauvian Postimpressionist painting style oriented toward reflected light and the dramatic use of color), the Computer Graphics (CG) artists of this film went for a realist painting style in which images show fine detail, mimicking all of the blemishes and spontaneous differences of reality. This form of film making crosses an important line. In previous types of animation, I think we identified with the characters and their adventures in a different way than we do in film. We are more aware that animations are not real - the image itself reminds us that this is not reality. But in film, the characters at least are real, even if they are smeared with makeup, the story is fictitious, and they are not really going through the actual events - despite this, we connect with these characters.

The more a movie (or other story) is meant to reflect reality, the more representative of reality it must be. So a computer animation that dares to reflect reality, also has the obligation to provide a deeper level of story and of emotion. For example, reality is not a static thing that can be captured for an instant and then displayed continuously in a scene. Reality changes continuously to represent the emotions and actions of the participants. It is ever changing - an actor's face changes continuously even within a second or two. If nothing else, the animators should have several different actors do staged readings of the scenes and capture their facial expressions, and then try to simulate the best of these in the animations. But in general in this aspect, the animations were amazing.

Another aspect of reality is skin texture, for which this film also made amazing strides. But could I tell that the actors and skin weren't real? At this time it is like asking if I can tell the difference between leather and fine imitations? Yes! Real skin contains translucent layers of skin, and has oil and moisture on the surface. This gives skin a luminance which can be achieved with the right graphic touches. The artists can also learn a lesson from Hollywood magic. Real actor's complexions are often enhanced with layers of makeup, selective lighting, and film that doesn't pick up tiny detail that well, and we seldom even know the difference. A perfect reflection of reality may not be as important as it is hyped to be.

For more information on emotional distancing in stories, see: Emotional Distance

- Scott

If you would like to know the triumphs and the disasters in a script before several million are spent on filming it, plus suggestions, contact me at Primary Contact. It only costs a little to make a lot more at the box office.

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


Artificial Intelligence (AI)

AI - Director: Stephen Spielberg. Writer: Steven Spielberg
Based on a screenplay by Ian Watson and a story by Brian Aldiss.

With just a tiny bit more work, this story could have been a much better movie. It provides an example of failing to draw an audience into a story, and an example of story structure that takes away from a story.

AI is about the question, "What makes us human?" Can a robot (computer intelligence) ever be human? The boy robot David (Haley Joel Osment) is created to be fully capable of human characteristics, even love. But he is quickly rejected by his family, and the rest of the story is about his quest to become human so he can regain his mother's acceptance and love.

The first twenty minutes or so of a film, the opening, are critical for engaging the audience. This story has an intriguing story line, great settings, nice special effects, and enough motivation and emotion in the opening, so why doesn't it emotionally engage the audience? Because we don't identify with the struggles of the people involved since there is no continuity of any single character's story. For the first twenty minutes we go from character to character to put together the story. The main character, the child robot, David, really doesn't become a character to identify with until the first turning point in the last scene of the opening. We see the mother mourning over her cryogenically preserved son - these scenes are dripping with emotion - but we haven't seen the impact of childlessness on her life or come to identify with her. A writer can't just drop an emotional scene on people and expect them to identify with the character. Identification is built through several scenes. It can even be done in the first few opening scenes.

The problem with story structure is a very difficult one for this story. Many stories wrestle with unanswerable questions about life, and there is no real answer to give. But writers (I think) feel like they have to wrap things up with a neat tidy answer. "This is what the film is about, so I have to provide an answer." This is the mistake that the writer of The Abyss made, and took the story into fantasy to provide an ending for the film. For me, it ruined the story, even though it is one of my favorites. For AI, it seems as if the writer struggled for an answer and just kept writing and writing, hoping one would somehow be dragged out. (This is a supposition on my part and may be unfair to the writers.) The ending of the movie goes on and on into fantasy when it should have expressed a salient point and then provided a satisfying resolution and stopped. It should have ended half an hour sooner.

I won't rewrite the ending here. But we all face unanswerable questions in life, and somehow we all end up doing something to move us forward in the stories that are our lives. Like the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, the difficult trail of getting to the answer (the Wizard) was really the thing that put the courage into the lion. In AI, I really felt at some point the fairy or some other character should have said, "You have proven yourself with all of the qualities that a human boy has. Who can say you are not human?" But fables are often fantasies of our fears and dreams, so perhaps it is just as well the story took the path of fantasy.

- Scott

If you would like to know the triumphs and the disasters in a script before several million are spent on filming it, plus suggestions, contact me at Primary Contact. It only costs a little to make a lot more at the box office.

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


Swordfish

Swordfish - Director: Dominic Sena. Writer: Skip Woods.

Like Moulin Rouge, this story opens with the character giving a monologue that tells us something about the story. While characters talking "about" the story is typically a no-no, and this could easily be a very bad device, it is used here very effectively. Swordfish is a good example of a movie that is fast paced, has a lot of action, has relatively decent characterization for an action movie, but whose main fault is a few character actions that just don't fit, spoiling the characterization of a main character.

It doesn't take many actions that are out of character to detract from a movie. In an action movie the pace is fast enough that a lot goes by unnoticed. But some things just call attention to themselves. Most of these revolve around the character Stanley Jobson (Hugh Jackman). Jackman delivers a good performance and fits well opposite Ginger (Halle Berry). But first off, Jobson doesn't fit my stereotypical image of a computer hacker (boo hoo). (Actually cracker, not hacker.) OK, so I normally argue against stereotypes, like "the nerdy, unmarried, childless, high school grad. geek who can't seem to get a suntan from his computer screen." But somewhere characterization isn't meeting expectations.

I could have let the image thing pass, but the character kept calling attention to himself. (Aside, the other computer hacker, Axl Torvalds (Rudolf Martin) kept his fake passport conveniently on display in his briefcase for Customs to spot. Incredible.) Then Jobson, after failing miserably at shifting in a sports car, drives it deftly down the street at high speed, across intersections at high speed where the traffic never quits without even scraping a fender. OK, so the hacker can drive with machine guns firing at him. More credibility lost. Cracking 128K ciphers in sixty seconds? It takes a supercomputer several months. Of course, the supercomputer doesn't have a gun to its head, but still... And then he picks up a missile launcher, assembles it instantly like a pro, and fires it at a fleeing helicopter. Did he spend time in the Army artillery? I'm really impressed at this superman hacker character. But I think to be a really good character, he really needed to have some human frailties, and a few less superpowers.

For more on characterization, see:

- Scott

If you would like to know the triumphs and the disasters in a script before several million are spent on filming it, plus suggestions, contact me at Primary Contact. It only costs a little to make a lot more at the box office.

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


Moulin Rouge

Moulin Rouge - Director: Baz Luhrmann. Writers: Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce.

Moulin Rouge symetrically ends with a mirror image of the way it begins. It begins with a conductor conducting music as the curtain opens, and then cuts to a main character, a writer who tells us how the story ends. It ends with the writer telling us how the story ends, and then cuts to the conductor conducting music as the curtain falls. Symmetry works well in stories, both in the beginning and ending and within scenes. But one thing within Moulin Rouge lacked the proper symmetry. This is a good example of when balancing material within a movie doesn't work.

Moulin Rouge is a musical and we are not accustomed to seeing musicals in movies today. Perhaps we will be. But the Director didn't adjust for current conditions. During the first fifteen minutes, when traditionally we are getting hooked by the story, the musical pieces go on and on and the cinematic extravaganza goes on and on while the story seems to go nowhere. I almost left the theater. Even a scene that should be exciting - when Satine (Nicole Kidman) is pandering to Christian's (Ewan McGregor) presumed desires, trying anything to appeal to him, the scene becomes boring, in my opinion. Watch this movie for yourself and note when you begin to tune out during those first critical fifteen to twenty minutes.

- Scott

If you would like to know the triumphs and the disasters in a script before several million are spent on filming it, plus suggestions, contact me at Primary Contact. It only costs a little to make a lot more at the box office.

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


What's The Worst That Can Happen?

What's The Worst That Can Happen? - Director: Sam Weisman. Writers: Matthew Chapman. Based on a novel by Donald Westlake.

If you write strong secondary characters, will they overshadow the main characters? They can, especially if the main characters are weak and the secondary characters' parts are too big, but in this movie strong secondary characters add an additional comedic element. This movie is a good example of excellent characterization in comedy both for driven main characters and for good use of secondary characters.

What's The Worst That Can Happen? is a very character driven movie, showing clearly how character motivation literally creates the story. It is the motivation of the main characters that creates the plot, the character personas, affects every supporting character, and infuses each scene with dramatic tension. Not only are the main characters well endowed with effective characterization, all of the numerous secondary characters are similarly endowed. The secondary characters are each very unique and motivated. There are no statues who walk on and walk off the stage. Each adds something unique to the main plot that stems from their individual motivations.

Main character Kevin Caffrey (Martin Lawrence) is a thief. He is very comfortable with who he is, and he targets where the money is: art that is easily fenced. Main character Max Fairbanks (Danny DeVito) is a financially successful businessman who strays regularly into the wrong side of the law in order to win. When the two meet, is there honor among thieves? They have no scruples when it comes to getting what they want from each other. The mixture is guaranteed to be explosive. It's a great recipe for characterization.

For more on characterization, see:

- Scott

If you would like to know the triumphs and the disasters in a script before several million are spent on filming it, plus suggestions, contact me at Primary Contact. It only costs a little to make a lot more at the box office.

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


Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon - Director: Ang Lee. Writers: Wang Hui Ling, James Schamus, Tsai Kuo Jung. Adapted from a novel written by Wang Du Lu.

Entertaining. Unique. Unusual. This movie is well worth seeing, and studying, just for the attributes I mention in this and following paragraphs. Director Ang Lee worked with some obviously good writers and actors in this movie. One of my favorites, who does both dramatic acting and martial arts well, was in this movie, Chow Yun-Fat as Li Mu Bai. And it was also good to see the dramatic side of Michelle Yeoh, who excellently played the part of Yu Shu Lien; and not to neglect the appearance of her two female counterparts played well by Zhang Ziyi and Cheng Pei Pei.

The acting was just the beginning of a good presentation. This is a film worth seeing for several reasons. First, I am usually the first to say, "Don't use subtitles," because you miss most of the on-screen action, but I was won over by the situation. Typically a foreign film would have English voices dubbed over the original voices, and in most martial arts films the result is a little cartoonish, and you certainly miss the dramatic action component of the voice. What came through in this film was the excellent spoken drama of the original actors - well worth the distraction of subtitles. The voice really made the film.

As I have said before, I really dislike seeing women in modern films given roles that reduce them to objects. In this story, three women have prominent lead roles, and the writers have done a great job of balancing the roles so that none is overshadowed. Li Mu Bai is the main protagonist. He shares the spotlight with Yu Shu Lien, yet she is not diminished. Zhang Ziyi is at once the antagonist, the victim, the student, and the hero - a very complicated character that comes across very well. And the main antagonist is the governess and villain Jade Fox. All of these characters in their situations and their relationships react like real people.

There are motifs that match the themes in the story. I don't know if the themes presented themselves serendipitously or by design. Freedom to do as they please (to not be forced into marriage and to seek adventure if it pleases them) is one major theme. Li Mu Bai is bound to his warrior past and he is unable to escape it even by giving away his sword. This is matched by the "flying" of the martial arts scenes - freedom of movement. Zhang Ziyi's desert bondage and fight for her "comb" is another symbol of the quest for freedom while facing certain male bondage. The power of the sword to be almost magically liberating in Zhang Ziyi's hands is another symbol of the fantasy of freedom - the sword brought only bondage to Li Mu Bai. This motif set the mood of the story, and was an active part of the story.

The mystery of China, and the mystery of the martial arts, was also well conveyed by the mists, the night, and the elusive figures who seemed to appear from nowhere. And also by justaposition of animals and positions in the name, "Crouching tiger, Hidden dragon," something mysterious lurks within the tiger. Another motif, it not only set the mood, it was an active part of the story - very well integrated.

This story could have been a tragedy. But the tragic element of the ending was painlessly extracted as Zhang Ziyi lives out the myth that was woven into the story. So we can only assume that the finale was good for both characters. But as an interesting exercise, how would it have changed the story if the ending had changed for both Li Mu Bai and Zhang Zivi?

- Scott

For more on using symbols and motifs, see Developing Motifs That Set Mood and Texture.

If you would like to know the triumphs and the disasters in a script before several million are spent on filming it, plus suggestions, contact me at Primary Contact. It only costs a little to make a lot more at the box office.

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


The Family Man, and What Women Want

The Family Man - Director: Brett Ratner. Writers: David Diamond and David Weissman.

What Women Want - Director: Nancy Meyers. Writers: Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa, from a story by Josh Goldsmith, Cathy Yuspa and Diane Drake.

A tale of two movies

One of these stories strikes people as a potential classic. The other mimics classic themes in modern culture (big band/crooner/dance era). Both are really good movies. Both have an element of the supernatural in them. Both will probably be favorites of many people for some time. Both are comedies in the classical sense (serious theme, humorous treatment), using concepts that people can strongly relate to. Both use motifs, and the motifs are one of the elements that help set these movies apart from other movies.

At a personal preference level, I liked The Family Man, but was immediately put off by the opening motif in What Women Want. If you liked It's A Wonderful Life, Scrooged, and Mr. Destiny, you're sure to like The Family Man. The themes are the same in all four: what would happen if your life took a different course? If you missed one of these, see it, because each treats the subject in a different way, so is an example of how the same subject can be developed very differently to make a very different story. And I have to ask, what would have happened if The Family Man had been developed differently?

First, about the motifs, in both The Family Man, and its predecessor It's A Wonderful Life when something magical is about to happen, it begins to snow. There is something ethereal about snowfall, something archetypal and mystical that we all can relate to. In both of these stories, when the person's life is about to jump into the parallel universe of what might have been, it begins to snow. It is a recurring element, visual, that sets our mood and expectations.

In What Women Want, the story opens with a Frank Sinatra style tune in the background with Nick Marshall (Mel Gibson) singing to it, as he sings and dances to this music several times in the story. This immediately provides auditory cues that help set the "personality" of the main character without having to "tell" us anything. It simply says that he relates to women in a romantic way - probably is a "ladies man." At this point, the cue neither gives us a good nor bad impression of the main character - he does that through his actions. This recurring element is auditory and helps set our expectations about the character. The motif presents a symbol of what the character is. And I have to ask, what would have happened if What Women Want had been developed differently?

About the supernatural elements, both of these stories have a supernatural element in them in which the universe momentarily provides an unexpected and radically different view of itself. In The Family Man, Jack Campbell (Nicolas Cage), gets to see what his life might have been like if he had married his college sweetheart, Kate (Tea leoni), instead of jetting off to London and becoming a business mogul. In What Women Want, Nick Marshall is suddenly able to hear the inner thoughts of women, and gets to find out their opinion of him and also learns what they want. The supernatural element gives each of these stories an interesting twist. But what would happen if they were developed without a supernatural element?

Now, what if? In The Family Man, would the story be equally as interesting if Jack Campbell became trapped through circumstances (a flood) with a family whose parents are separated from them by the flood? And his old college sweetheart is trapped there with him. They would get to discover the thrills of family life, rediscover each other, and maybe see a new future together. But would it have the same zing as a Christmas-time story in which the universe suddenly intervenes to deliver a special message?

In What Women Want, would the story be equally as interesting if Nick Marshall learned what women want simply by eavesdropping on private female conversations (not an admirable practice), or by enlisting other women to report on private female conversations to a third party? Would it have the same zing as a Christmas-time story in which the universe suddenly intervenes to deliver a special message?

In an ironic twist, sometimes the supernatural may be very useful in a story. On the one hand, allowing characters to resolve stories through supernatural abilities, or having God intervene to resolve the ending of a story, are very bad story-telling mechanisms that subvert the character's resolving his problems through his own means. On the other hand, having a supernatural element in the story to give it a helpful twist sometimes gives it an interesting "zing" it might not have. Other examples are, The Twilight Zone and other sci-fi stories.

- Scott

For more on using symbols and motifs, see Developing Motifs That Set Mood and Texture.

If you would like to know the triumphs and the disasters in a script before several million are spent on filming it, plus suggestions, contact me at Primary Contact. It only costs a little to make a lot more at the box office.

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


Highlander: End Game   Director: Douglas Aarniokoski. Writers: Gregory Widen, Eric Bernt, Joel Soisson, from a story by Gillian Horvath and William Panzer.

A moment of cynicism first: apparently it was time to make more money off of the Highlander series. OK, OK, put your swords away - everyone wants to see a successful series continued, but I couldn't help but feel that this story in the series was a bit contrived. Anyway, it is an example of creating mythical heroes and of a story that looks contrived.

I think that there is a feeling among writers that you can take a mythical series and invent a new piece of mythos to incorporate within it, and everyone will buy it. It just isn't so. It would be like suddenly changing the rules for everyone living on earth. We would all notice if suddenly donuts were square, had square holes, and hung on round office pegs next to square coffe cups. If the rules feel cluged together to make a story work, it doesn't work.

Take for example the Batman comic book series that was leveraged into feature films. Characters like Bat Boy and Bat Girl were created as the series moved along. But in the most recent picture, Bat Boy was given a new character beginning that paralleled Batman's, and Batman was given a new character beginning for motivation. I can't remember Batman's beginnings in the original comic books, but in my mind the story felt reconstructed and it didn't work. Series work when you stick with the original or create new story as you go. Reinventing rules and character's pasts doesn't work very well.

Star Trek is a series that rarely ever had that, "We just reinvented ourselves" feeling. Even with three different TV series, sometimes running simultaneously, the Star Trek series always felt like the rules of the game were consistent. Even character's pasts, which often had to be constructed for a new story, seemed like they fit well with past stories.

This is what happened in Highlander: End Game: I'm not a Highlander devotee, but I've seen some of both the TV and feature film versions. For one thing, I don't remember the mythos of a female immortal who was born human and had to be made immortal by stabbing her. I really strained over this one.

I also don't remember seeing groups of immortals working together like Vampires in a Buffy The Vampire Slayer story, although I guess they probably could. It's just that "the immortals" (who just are) seems more like a loner profession since they were all eventually going to have to kill each other (there can be only one), but I'll grant that in the first feature film version the story used fellow immortal Ramirez (Sean Connery) as an allie. In general the buddy buddy system doesn't seem to fit.

The point is this: If you invent a myth, map out the rules of the game so if it becomes a mega-hit series it doesn't have this inconsistency problem. Reinventing the character's past and the rules midstream just doesn't work very well.

End Game didn't seem to be the end. The phrase "End Game" seemed to be the lure to get us into the theater. It did seem to be the end for Conner MacLoed (Christopher Lambert) who voluntarily gave up his heroic mantel to Duncan MacLoed (Adrian Paul) the younger brother, of TV series fame. Unfortunately we mortals do age, and in Hollywood films there can be only one.

- Scott

If you would like to know the triumphs and the disasters in a script before several million are spent on filming it, plus suggestions, contact me at Primary Contact. It only costs a little to make a lot more at the box office.

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.


Space Cowboys    Director: Clint Eastwood. Writers: Ken Kaufman and Howard A Klausner.

Space Cowboys is a fun movie, and here is the good, the bad, and the ugly. This is an example of story development that is different, an example of using universal themes and humor to really engage the audience, an example of some really hokey plotting, and an example of how easy it is to modify parts of a story.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly was one of Clint Eastwoods early movies after he left the Raw Hide TV series, and Space Cowboys is his most recent movie. I've seen Clint Eastwood's entire career, and I'm still young (possibly just immature). All of my short life I have noticed this: people in their 60s basically want much the same things in life as people in their 20s. This is one good thing about this movie, it taps into these universal themes.

What do young people want besides security and money? They want to be loved. They want to have a purpose. They want to achieve their dreams. What do middle-age people want besides security and money? They want to be loved. They want to have a purpose. They want to achieve their dreams. What do the elderly want? The same. Not much really ever changes these desires. And the fact is, many people are into their later years when they do become very successful in a career, go to pioneering efforts, or meet their greatest challenges.

In the movie, four of NASAs original space candidates, passed over and forgotten for forty years, are suddenly in demand for a mission that only they can do. The man on the moon needs a good laxative. No, no, wrong story - I was thinking about green cheese. Only they know the technology of an old satellite whose orbit is quickly deteriorating, and there is no time to teach the technology to someone else.

For these four men, their dream of getting to the moon is near total eclipse. So when invited to go on the mission, how do they react? Frank Corvin (Clint Eastwood) suggests that he is a very busy man. His wife laughs unreservedly at this. Installing a garage door opener is the high spot of his day - he has very little purpose. Tank Sullivan (James Garner) is a Baptist minister who is helping his small flock get to sleep with incredibly boring sermons. His purpose is enriching but unchallenging, and he is in need of something he can sink his teeth into. He doesn't hesitate to go. Jerry O'Neil (Donald Sutherland), an unfettered playboy, is immediately on board. And for Hawk Hawkins, now a barnstorming stunt flier, missing the flight to stay at home and be puked on by squeamish passengers is a risk he won't take. So this mission is both a dream and a purpose for them all.

What about love? What about humor? See the movie and answer these for yourself. They are definitely in the mix for all four characters. Ask yourself, did these things do anything to affect the reactions by the likely age gap in the viewing audience? In other words, did these things bring a wider audience?

There are more good elements in this story. The special effects in space are one - the realism really took you there. Conflict is another. Frank hates the agency director's guts - the director is a conniving bureaucrat who is amazingly still in the agency after forty years. And Frank and Hawk have unresolved issues from their last test flight together. These add a lot of conflict to the first half of the movie.

The story development in this movie is a good example of a different format that sometimes works, as it does in this one. Although, it would have been better had some conflict continued through the entire movie. The first 80 minutes is well done (keeps your interest) and focuses on set up, the conflicts between the characters, and the obstacles they face getting through the NASA training program. But at the 80 minute point, these conflicts are resolved. At this point, the conflict changes entirely. The next 45 minutes jump into edge-of-your-seat high action mode and are devoted to the actual space mission. The new obstacle they confront is an unruly satellite that is not what it appears to be, and a wrestling match ensues that threatens to destroy them and the US. This form of development is similar to The Dirty Dozen (the appearance of Donald Sutherland made me think of that. For those not in the know about military things, the typical inspecting officer has been to every town in the world. I may never forget as Sutherland's character inspects the troops in that movie, his parody line about one soldier's home town, "Never heard of it, son.") Back to the chase -

And then we come to the bad. The part of the storyline about a Russian plot to get the Americans to rescue their defective communications satellite which used stolen technology and is full of nuclear warheads with no fail-safe, is just plain out of this world. Credibility shot the moon. If this premise wasn't bad enough, the agency bureaucrat Bob Gerson (James Cromwell) and a young astronaut seemed to be long term parts of the Russian scheme. This brought the plot to... I shouldn't say it... aargh... it hurts me to say... ugly. Of course, some device such as this was needed to bring this story to a final heart wrenching spectacle of self-sacrifice. But a different piece of storyline would have delivered a more deserving swan song.

What can you do with a story that has a defective plot line? Throw the entire thing away? No way. If you can see the parts of a story and how they are related, you can replace the defective parts with very little problem. To wit:

The entire "Russian" part of the plot was a throw in piece that could easily have been altered. Suppose Gerson had been a bad engineer on various space projects, causing crashes, causing finger-pointing and in-fighting, and the other guys hated him for it but could never prove it. Gerson escapes into a leadership role. Now he is a bureaucrat, blaming Frank's design, and sending them to correct his mistake. Early in the program he approved a nuclear power cell to be secretly on board a humongous spy satellite, which is no longer used. The satellite's orbit is decaying and the rockets won't fire. Only Gerson knows that it is too radioactive to send a young guy who may die from it. There is only enough propulsive fuel on the satellite for an orbital boost that will buy 15 years before the problem returns - if they can get the frozen engines to fire. But for fifteen years, Gerson will again avoid responsibility and will have a nice retirement before the satellite again threatens to fall and becomes some other person's nightmare.

The team will likely have future health problems and eventually die, possibly caused by radiation exposure that no one will detect. Gerson has secretly replaced their suit radiation detectors with defective ones. The team doesn't know that the satellite is hot until the ship gets close - Gerson believes they will keep it secret. They calculate that the satellite has a high risk of contaminating US or European highly populated areas, now or in the future. An onboard radiation sensor alerts them to the hazard, and Hawk volunteers to ride the pony to the moon. This is all that has to be changed, the story makes sense, same high stakes, the conflict now bridges both halves of the story, and it doesn't boot people out of the fictional dream - all changed in one long day of rewriting. It really isn't difficult if you can get a grasp on what the elements are within a story.

- Scott

If you would like to know the triumphs and the disasters in a script before several million are spent on filming it, plus suggestions, contact me at Primary Contact. It only costs a little to make a lot more at the box office.

Space Cowboys Web page at Warner Brothers (on the WB home page Movie menu): http://www.wb.com/

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.


Frequency Director: Gregory Hoblit. Writer: Toby Emmerich 

Here is a movie that does a lot of things very well, and should delight audiences and cynics alike. Audiences because it is entertaining. Cynics because it has a lot of their favorite junk food that should send them into a sugar frenzy of cynical criticism.

Interesting elements to explore: Categories, plots, use of action, symbols, motifs, hook.

Briefly the storyline is as follows: We meet Frank Sullivan (Dennis Quaid) and realize he is a firefighter doing a dangerous job, and then we meet his family. Then we're into the future and Frank's son John (John Caviezel) is 36, lacks good council from a father figure, is a cop, and his father is 20 years deceased from being a hero in a fire. Sunspots create a time warp for his father's old ham radio and suddenly John is talking to his father. He has the opportunity to change the past, and saves his father from death. But the change brings his family into his police work and his mother now gets killed by the serial killer who John has been investigating. John gets his father to intervene, and again saves his family, and in a twist of fate and time, his father rescues him.   

How do you label this story? Labels are the ultimate weapons of the cynic. Shove something into a category and put a label on it, and you don't have to examine it closely enough to have your reality questioned - the world continues to safely live up to the cynic's perceptions, unchallenged by contradictions.  

This story is labeled science fiction, although it is probably closer to fantasy. The story is actually more drama than science fiction, and in another genre twist, it includes some good action sequences. Maybe it should have been labeled action or drama? It also has mystery in it. Maybe it should go into the mystery category.

Note that even thought it wears the science fiction label, it is not in some futuristic setting with pretend science and a pretend future society that borders on fantasy. It deals with family events in modern times - '60s through the '90s. So already it will probably have the obsessive labelers up in arms because they doubt they can film it, watch it, or sell it because it doesn't fit snugly into one category.

This story would also be difficult to pigeonhole to just one audience age group. Part of the setting is a ham radio, which is sure to grab many from the pre '70s and intrigue those in the '90s. The radio and the focus on family give it a cross-generational appeal. Again, labels aren't likely to fit.

For the "Been there, done that" cynic who thinks that if there is a comparison to another movie then it shouldn't be filmed, or watched, this movie does have some similarities to other movies. It shares the time visitation theme with Back To The Future and Dead Again, and its plot is as convoluted as Dead Again. It shares a little of the romantic qualities and the "get the villain" qualities of Ghost and Dead Again. It shares fire-fighting imagery with Backdraft. I see all of these as good things. And like the ultimate comparison movie Titanic, there is a little love on display (Father, son, mother), and the time travel ship sinks at the end. 

I think that one of the secrets to writing a successful story is combining many of the ingredients that make stories interesting. This one contains drama, science fiction (maybe fantasy), love, mystery, action, a complex plot, and surprises. Genre classifications are an artificial division that only help people determine what they want to see - genres don't dictate the content of a movie or the use of such elements as mystery and suspense, which can be added to any story to make it more engaging.

There were some difficulties in the story that I noticed, but they weren't all that bothersome. It opened with a hook instead of getting into the story. The hook, the firefighting scene at the beginning, related to the story but didn't really do anything to develop the plot (as the James Bond movies always begin). The first 30 minutes tended to be a little slow - drama speed, not action - and didn't move the story forward much, except for showing relationships. It was a little predictable at times (I knew the firefighter would be implicated in the murders), but some predictability isn't necessarily bad. The unpredictability and surprises in the plot more than made up for the occasional predictable scene. It was just a little sappy for those expecting an action movie, but it was basically drama. The story wasn't critically dependent on any of these things, so they didn't hurt it.

The action in this movie sharpened the drama without turning it into an action movie. The action didn't overshadow the drama, which would have ruined the story. It achieved a good balance.

Symbols were used masterfully in this story. Frank called his son "Chief." When John hears Frank call his son Chief over the radio, his suspicion that he is talking to his father is crystallized. Baseball events and scores also are available at critical moments to confirm the reality of the situation (woven into the story, not coming from thin air). Symbols even got a showing as a cinematic device. A falling glass and a falling fireman's hat are used to unite two periods of time that are critical moments. Frank is at the critical moment of choosing the safe way out of the building, or dying. His hat goes out the window and falls toward the ground. John, in the future, drops his glass, which falls toward the floor. Frank disappears into the smoke and "falls" down a chute. When the hat hits the ground and the glass hits the floor and shatters, John is aware of both pasts.

Motifs can be an important element in a story, not just setting the mood, but interacting with the story as well. Baseball worked very well in the story, providing an avenue for character development, the mechanism for the symbols, and was even used in the denouement. Importantly, it set the family togetherness mood for the drama. Baseball is one of the layers of the story that could easily have been changed to any other imagery, such as another sport, watching the stock exchange, rodeos, music, or even the weather.

If I had been critiquing this script, I would have given it a rare "Superior" rating.

- Scott

If you would like to know the triumphs and the disasters in a script before it becomes a movie, plus suggestions, contact me at Primary Contact. It only costs a little to make a lot more at the box office.

New Line Cinema Web site for Frequency: http://www.frequencymovie.com/

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.


Wonder Boys  Director: Curtis Hanson. Writer: Steve Kloves, Based on the novel by Michael Chabon.

Ugh! Something doesn't fit. Entertaining story, but strangely disconcerting in the resolution. It talked a good resolution, but I didn't believe it.

An English professor finds that his life is a total mess. He is writing the never ending story. His agent's career depends on his success. His wife has left him. He is in love with a married woman. He smokes dope and resolutely refuses to see the impact on his life. And he becomes involved in the personal lives of his students. One young temptress boards with him, and a depressive young man, James Leer (Tobey Maguire) seems to be at one end of a life rope, the other end of which is demaning the professor's attention.

Grady Tripp's (Michael Douglas) novel seems to reflect his life, going on and on about nothing. At this point in the story, Grady realizes that his life is about nothing, and I am wondering what this story is about. It could be about his new love - but as soon as he is free, she seems willing to give him up - the relationship seems more like a convenient sexual arrangement, a tawdry affair, than a real relationship.

He lacked committment to his ex-wife - never spent any time with her. He lacked committment to anything. Rescuing James Leer seems to trigger a turning point for him. He throws away his marijuana, wrecks his lover's marriage, and decisively tells her that he loves her and wants to marry her.

The premise of the movie seems to be that Grady lacked the ability to decide or commit himself to anything. Suddenly saving someone else empowers him to make decisions and committments.

- Scott

Paramount Web site for Wonder boys 

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.

 


Holy Smoke  Director: Jane Campion. Writers: Anna Campion, Jane Campion.

If you are looking for pure escapism, you may or may not find it in this movie. It depends on what you are looking for. It can be entertaining for ogling bods. It can be entertaining for shock value. It can be entertaining for serious relflection. Of course, isn't that what the skin magazines say? "Here is something profound to read... and here, look at this picture."

Two women left the theater thinking that it was a total waste, was about a "dirty old man," and probably shouldn't have been made. This movie is probably going to fit a niche that I won't describe so that it doesn't become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The sexual content is pretty heavy. Were the sex scenes gratuitous, or essential to the plot? Did the writers go overboard? Read the following, see the movie, and then try to answer that question for yourself.  

This movie, at its deepest level, is about finding the magic bullet. At the risk of creating a new cynicism for Hollywood (where cynicism runs on rocket fuel), I suspect that people reach a point where any old cure or any new cure will work. Whatever was bothering a person for the last 10 to 50 years, that couldn't be cured with any number of cures, suddenly responds to the most sublime or amazing cure. Who knows what it will be - staring at a picture, flashing lights, a change of location, a new person in his life, a religious experience, a new shrink with a different method... It isn't the cure - it's that the person is finally ready to be cured. But don't reach for the wrong cure, as they did in this movie.

In this movie, Kate Winslet (Ruth Barron) was at the wrong place at the right time, and became involved in a cult. Or was she? And Harvey Keitel (PJ Waters) came to rescue her - he knew the right things. Or did he? Was Harvey now at the wrong place at the right time? His black clothes indicated the lack of success in his own assessment of truth. Despite his "interviewing" successes, Harvey was not all that he appeared to be.

What did Kate see that she thought would save her? The truth - a magic bullet consisting of a vision of kindness personified by a guru. What did Harvey see that he thought would save him? A truth about himself, Personified in Kate and "curable" through the magic bullet of a sexual relationship with her. Yet the truth wasn't manifested in her life by acts of kindness - instead she found comfort in only hearing the words and living in the love of others. (But isn't that the way kindness begins?) Once that love was removed, exposed, she lost the truth. So left with nothing, truth suddenly became personified to her by Harvey (probably transferrence).

But Kate's true nature, which lacked kindness, came out in her attacks on Harvey, exposing his lust for what it was - the lack of real life in his life. And in sudden attack of love (probably countertransferrence that easily skirted professional decorum,) Kate became the symbol of Harvey's truth and an easy target for his passion. From that moment on, passion lubricated the slippery slope to destruction, their sexual passion alternately spiked with revenge in a game of one-up-manship by two people struggling with problems at a deeper level but misidentifying the cause, like we all do, or at least I do.

At least they played their game until they found their answer. Cynics, not fooled by magic bullets, believe that knowing the game is the same as playing it. But the outcomes are different.

The characters were well drawn and stayed in character. The sexual escapades seemed to fit the naked truth. Beyond that it is a matter of taste.

- Scott

Miramax Web site for Holy Smoke 

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.

The opinions expressed on the Movie Critique pages are only opinions and not statements of fact.

Other distribution restrictions: None

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