Copyright © 1997, 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
Here is the best and worst of characterization all in one package. This movie ended up looking like a good story that someone tried to convert to a star vehicle. Relying on formulas almost put Bruce Willis in a B movie. I left the movie with an odd sense of, "Well OK, whatever." I guess I was entertained, but something was a little off. I get the same feeling from many scripts that I read. Putting my finger on the problem wasn't easy, but it came down to characterization imbalance that led to an unsatisfying resolution. Here is Art Jeffries, superhero in an FBI role, this god-like creature stumbling along on the heels of a very real autistic child. It doesn't work - it would have made a better parody, a comedy.
This type of storyline worked very well in other stories with actors who have played larger than life heroes. Schwartzenneger played a cop disguised as a kindergarten teacher, in Kindergarten Cop (Universal, 1990). But in the story, Schwartzenegger's character was just a cop, not a superhero. And in Three Fugitives (Touchstone 1989), Nick Nolte played a paroled bank robber who ends up rescuing a kid. In both of these movies, the protagonist ends up affected by his new role and it changes his life.
But what happened in Mercury Rising? Art Jeffries comes on like he was starring in another DieHard, and goes out like he was still an archetype - just touched down on earth to do a little good will, and is untouched by the entire thing. The ending was unsatisfying.
On the brighter side, there was some excellent characterization in this movie. Lt.Col. Kudrow, played by Alec Baldwin, was an excellent villain. He wrapped himself in the flag and patriotism spilled from his mouth, but his heart was set on mercenary objectives - get his prize and keep climbing at any cost. Very convincing. And we didn't get a lot of shots of Kudrow, but we felt his presence in the confrontations, knowing that he was working behind the scenes. He was often represented by his staff, who were excellent front-men - they believed the hype. These three people who worked for him were also excellently drawn characters. They were very human. One swallowed everything and walked the line as expected, but the other was fearful, unconvinced, and a loose cannon. They made very interesting characters.
If it could be rewritten, kill the formula approach to the opening - I didn't need any of it, it hurt the story, and it didn't do anything for the star. Make the protagonist human with something human to gain from his interaction with the child.
See how this movie leaves you feeling untouched at the end - good characterization and a satisfying resolution are vital to stories.
Mercury Rising, 1998, Universal
Writers: Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal (based on the novel Simple
Simon by Ryne Douglas Pearson)
When would a good plot and good characters get in the way of a good movie? In a Jackie Chan movie. I mean this very respectfully to Jackie's work. Jackie is one of my (few) favorite actors, and he has some very special talents. His plots are basically formulas, and very predictable ones at that. His characters are puppets. His dialogue for the entire movie is hopeless. And he creates from this an excellent movie. Go figure.
I typically write against formulas, but they do serve a purpose, especially in serials. In a formula story we know what to expect, so in a series, formula stories regularly confirm for us that life is just and the good guy wins in the end. It's just fun. We know this going into Jackie's movies. But the formula in Jackie's movies does something else for us. We don't have to pay much attention to the storyline - we can just sit and munch popcorn and be amazed by the spectacle of Jackie's stunts. The movie is really a vehicle for his stunts.
Jackie is also a good example of "show don't tell." Jackie doesn't speak English well, so there are a lot of Mandarin lines in his movies, and his dialogue is very short. So Jackie accomplishes a lot with just a look. There is a lot of set up to his scenes which prepare the audience for that brief moment of action that tells what Jackie feels. For example when two women do things which are totally in character, but totally work against him, he turns and briefly gives them a disgusted look. He doesn't have to say a word, and the look is very brief, but the communication with the audience is perfect.
Jackie uses some melodrama. Melodrama is another thing I typically am against. Melodrama is overacting - the much larger than real life actions that an actor does to make his point. You can see melodrama in silent films where it was a way of communicating without words. It was prevalent in Gone With The Wind. To a certain extent, melodrama is always used on stage because an actor's movements have to be exaggerated in order to be seen. Small movements that a camera would pick up, simply aren't seen on stage. Although acting coaches warn against using melodrama, I have seen melodrama used to good effect in certain instances. I have seen it used on stage to quickly get through periods of passing time and events, similar to using a collage of shots in film to indicate actions that happen over a period of time. The audience gets the point, but without the laborious sequencing of scenes that on stage would be very time consuming, boring, and require a lot of costume and scene changes.
Another instance when melodrama was used to good effect was in Bullets Over Broadway, the 1994 Woody Allen film. In the movie, the gangster Cheech (Chazz Palminteri), is a character we are supposed to identify with and like. But Cheech regularly takes people out and eliminates them. So how is this character going to be likeable, and how is executing people not going to drag the film down with heavy drama? By using melodrama. In a very quick, light scene, Cheech takes the person out to a peer, the person disappears behind a fence, Cheech fires the gun and it is over. The movie doesn't take it seriously, and neither does the audience.
In Jackie Chan movies, the only time you see the real consequences of physical trauma is at the end, where you see shots of when Jackie got hurt doing the stunts. It doesn't take very much to really hurt someone, but the action in the movie is bigger than life - it is melodrama. And some of Jackie's reactions are bigger than life. When the character is scared, you see scared all over Jackie's body. It is melodrama, and it works for Jackie Chan movies.
Jackie is also a master of slap-stick humor. Slap-stick requires very little dialogue - it is mostly action. In this movie, he throws in the building with too many halls, rooms, and doors. You don't realize it is a slap-stick scene when it is happening. It's a construction site and they're after him. It seems real enough, but suddenly you are laughing. Round and round, in and out they go, coming face-to-face and scaring each other, going through doors that go outside three stories up...
This movie, like all Jackie Chan movies, is a good example of how to break the regular rules and make it work.
Mr. Nice Guy, 1997, Golden Harvest / New Line
Writers: Edward Tang, Fibe Ma
Incognito is an example of excellent characterization, plot, surprises, and good research. It all adds up to a very enjoyable movie. My hat is off to the writer.
In the movie there is an art forger and art thieves. Which bad person do we identify with? This story is an interesting study in characterization and what makes us identify with characters. I think the question is, who do we see good in? Let's see, if I were creating a protagonist, would I start with a forger who has an amazing talent, is brash, and is money hungry? This doesn't sound like a likable person, but this protagonist, Harry Donovan (Jason Patric) is easy to like. He has a dying father who knows he has not been a good influence on his son and wants to see him succeed. We want to see the protagonist use his gift and do well for himself, and stop being an opportunistic thief. So, just like the female art appraiser, Prof. Marieke van den Broeck (Irene Jacob) in the story, we allow ourselves to get caught up in his scheme, all the while hoping he is redeemed in the end. For more on character identification, see Making Dull Characters Sparkle.
Plot, Surprises, and Research
We never know where this movie is going. Just when you think it is going one way, a surprise comes out of nowhere and were off in an entirely new direction. But very believably. I won't give the plot away, but here are the relevant questions that make the turning points. What is an artist's signature worth? What are the bad guys really up to? Murder? When is forgery not forgery? The writer apparently either knows the art field well, or researched the subject well (or is a master of illusion). Most of the surprises are the result of knowledge about the field that the average person doesn't know. It is very believable.
See this movie - it's not only entertaining, it's a good example of how to do it.
Incognito, 1997, Morgan Creek Productions / RE PRODUCTIONS UK LIMITED
Writer: Jordan Katz
It is the third in the series of summer disaster movies, and a really good popcorn movie. When the first few comets hit New York City, I had to say, "Godzilla is back and boy is he steamed!" Hopefully Armageddon will get the box office it deserves after people find out that it is better than that earlier asteroid movie and the critics were basically wrong. Enough retrospective and sarcasm. The thing that I thought was done especially well for this movie was the characterization - especially for an action movie. Bruce Willis (Harry Stamper) actually eeks out a tear at the end (or was that part of the special effects?). Speaking of special effects, the comet really did look like evil incarnate coming for the earth.
There was some humor in the story and it was nicely done. It really helped lighten the mood, which could have gotten maudlin and dark. There were two characters that were given comedic personalities. They provided great comic relief, and they didn't overshadow each other or the main characters. The Russian, who does his part to save the mission, is very comedic. Eleven months in space makes one loopy. And who would you least expect to be a driller on an oil rig? Some genius with two degrees? And who would you least expect to be showing signs of insanity? The guy they let play with explosives? The guy with two degrees? Yeah. And we see yet another fascinating use of duct tape. (I'm sure that really did hurt when they pulled it off his face - or else they put vaseline on it.)
Take a group of oil riggers, or any other group of people, and you tend to see them all the same and make them all the same. But these characters were mostly different. How do you do it? Follow this link.
Armageddon, 1988, Touchstone / Buena Vista
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.
Other distribution restrictions: None