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Just Saw [Insert Movie Title Here]...

...or how my MFA in screenwriting ruined any chance of enjoying a movie like a normal person. If I apply what I've learned to existing films, would it have made a better film?

SPOILER WARNING: Please be advised, I plan to discuss plot points in detail so if you haven't seen the movie and don't want the surprise ruined, stop here.

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Sunday, January 29, 2006

Underworld: Evolution

Logline: Kate Beckinsale must end a centuries old blood feud by preventing a vampire from freeing his werewolf brother.

The good idea:

Kate Beckinsale in a leather jumpsuit, lots of non-stop, over-the-top violence with a gothic vision.

What worked:

The film tries to infuse a larger story into all the action: Enmity and hatred spanning centuries coming to an end (Marcus freeing William); father-son guilt and loyalty (Corvinus's inability to kill his sons has cost many lives over the centuries); and psychological ghosts and demons from the past informing the present (Selene discovers her own father's actions were not arbitrary).

What didn't work:

Unfortunately all of the above comes across in long expositional speeches by Derek Jacobi midway through the movie and through various flashbacks and blood visions. While the opening flashback sets up the outer goal of Marcus wanting to free his brother William, it doesn't clearly convey why. Is it world domination? Revenge? What is their unfinished business?

Also, Selene, played by Kate Beckinsale, is compelled to stop them for no apparent reason other than if she doesn't there wouldn't be a movie. Again, without knowing what the stakes are if the brothers reunite, her reasons for stopping them seem arbitrary. Marcus is coming after her because she literally has the key to finding William but why does she feel compelled to stop his dastardly plan, if he has one?

A couple of missed opportunities story-wise. Michael, a hybrid, has special powers. However, those special powers never seem to come into play. He's just as strong and has many of the same abilities of his enemies (jumping long distances, absorbing bullets, jaw ripping strength). The reason for his Act III resurrection is muddled. Did he arise from the dead because of his special powers (though still undefined) or from Selene spilling her blood into his wounds?

Selene is a vampire and thus, cannot be exposed to sunlight. This is established at the beginning of her story when her hands and face burn at sunrise. When she drinks Derek Jacobi's blood he tells her she will have greater powers than before. However, it doesn't appear that these special powers ever come into play. She uses only her well established abilities in the climatic fight. After the climatic fight is over, the sun rises and Selene is able to stand in sunlight without danger. Perhaps a more integral use of this newfound ability would have been to have the sun rise during the climatic fight and Marcus becomes over confident that he has won because she will now die in sunlight. Her ability to survive sunlight allows her to defeat Marcus. This way, drinking Derek Jacobi's blood affects the outcome rather than reading as a nice bonus at the end.

Despite its storytelling ambitions, the only thing you really need to know to follow the plot is that the attractive people are the good guys (as good as good can be in this world) and the ugly people are evil.

Monday, January 09, 2006


Logline: To avoid arrest for immorality, Casanova betrothes himself to the virginal Victoria but soon his affections turn toward Francesca, a strong willed, educated writer of heretical philosophy.

The Good Idea: A luxurious, costume romantic comedy for people who enjoyed Shakespeare in Love.

Why it worked.

Classic romantic comedy structure. We see the lovers meet in Act I and discover each is betrothed to someone else. Each has their deception they must maintain as they pursue each other. They separate at the end of Act II when their deception is revealed and reunite in Act III after a chase scene.

There is enough charm to cancel some incredibly gaping holes in logic. Structurally, every setup had a payoff and every payoff had a setup. It's an enjoyable movie if you don't think too hard and embrace the silliness of its contrivances.

Why it didn't work.

Casanova is known for his male libido. However, once he falls in love with Francesca, his ability to seduce women never becomes a complication or obstacle in his quest for her. For a man who gets around, very few people seem to recognize him.

The setup for his rescue from execution in Act III is barely one line in Act I. To recall this line in Act III is asking a lot and is confusing until Casanova's mother makes the connection for the audience.

Thursday, January 05, 2006


Logline: A Middle Eastern reformer and heir to an oil empire is assassinated in favor of his brother who has policies more favorable to American corporations.

The Good Idea: Expose some underlying causes to the instability in the Middle East.

Why it worked.

The film conveyed a good sense of danger and duplicity. In nearly every scene, nothing was as it appeared. Bennett Holiday is charged with finding out if any laws were broken when a small oil company lands drilling rights in Kazakhstan just before they are bought out by a large oil company. The truth he discovers is superceded by the interests of the corporations and the judiciary. Yes, some laws were broken, but find a high profile scapegoat and sweep it under the rug for the greater good. But just who decides what the greater good is?

Why it didn't work.

I had a hard time keeping track of all the different story threads. Bennett's investigation was the main one. Bryan Woodman's friendship and counsel to Prince Nasir, heir apparent to an oil fortune and idealistic reformer was another story. Bob Barnes CIA mission to Beruit and finally the transformation of a young man into a suicide bomber.

Confusion arose for me in Bennett's investigation because it seemed he was following instructions from Jimmy Pope, Dean Whiting or a mysterious man in the back of a limo. Prince Nasir already intended to put in place social reforms so I didn't understand why his relationship with Bryan Woodman was important. What exactly was Bob's mission to Beruit, how did he screw up and why did he need to go to the Persian Gulf?

All these threads are building to the Range Rover caravan in the desert. Prince Nasir has just received word from his father that he will not inherit the kingdom. Bob Barnes has fought his way back to the Middle East to catch up with Prince Nasir only to die with the Prince in a smart bomb explosion sent by the U.S. before he has a chance to do what he needed to do. This scene, while horrific, did not feel inevitable nor tragic but arbitrary. Why would the U.S. government kill a political figure who had no power? Storywise, he didn't die at the worst possible moment, indeed, the bomb could have been sent minutes earlier and achieved the same emotional effect. Looking back at all the various story threads, I couldn't see who's agenda this act fulfills.

Using Bob Barnes CIA mission to Beirut as an example: Bob meets an old man to arrange a meeting with Mussawi. Later, Bob is kidnapped by Mussawi, tortured and is about to be killed when the old man intervenes. CIA HQ receives word that Bob has blown his cover and concocts a CYA story about him being a rogue agent. Then Bob is back in Maryland recovering at a military hospital. The sequence of events is clear, each scene logically follows, however, it's never stated why he was there. What was he supposed to do? We knew the mission was important to him but because of his misanthropathy, we never fully sensed he was "our guy." Without knowing or even having a sense of this, the torture becomes mere spectacle illiciting little more than sympathy at the sight of another person's pain.

I can see why this film has garnered its acclaim. It's ambitious and challenging with no clear cut themes or traditional heroes and villains. It uses a lot of morally gray characters and hidden agendas to convey the sense that Middle East politics and economics is byzantine, controlled by a handful of men. It achieves its intent by not serving up easily digestable fortune cookie solutions to complex problems.

However, following (more like, assembling) the story becomes such an intellectual exercise that the emotional impact is lost. Who are these people and why should I care about what they're going through? Because it depicts a world of backroom deals, corporate, governmental and international sleight of hand, a world that is far removed from my everyday experience, then I need to know how all these machinations affect me within the world of the story.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006


Logline: Israel sends an assassination team to kill the terrorists responsible for the death of their athletes during the 1972 Olympic games in Munich.

The Good Idea: A compelling "what if" scenario based on a best selling book directed by Steven Spielberg.

Why it worked:

The central dilemma faced by team leader Avner as he dispatches each terrorist is: Is killing ever justified? His actions are sanctioned by Golda Meir (though not officially acknowledged), but as his missions progress, he wonders if he is any better than the men he is killing.

It's a powerful and frighteningly relevant question complicated by the backdrop of a morally ambiguous world where information is bartered with no regard for nationality or loyalty. It became far simpler for Avner to carry out his mission than to live with the consequences of a world that he helped create. Here the theme is delivered: The human toll from killing is far greater than a mere body count.

The use of food as a metaphor for Avner's state of mind along with his anxiety once he realized he was being hunted were well executed.

The final moment where Ephraim refuses to break bread with Avner with the Twin Towers as a backdrop forces the audience to acknowledge the price Avner paid for his loyalty and ask if his actions ultimately solved anything.

Why it didn't work:

The death of the athletes was Israel's nightmare realized and created a deep wound in the psyche of a nation. However, intercutting scenes of their death with Avner making love to his wife were not effective because we were never given a direct, personal connection between Avner and the athletes. For example, was he there as a guard and failed his duty, or were any of the athletes close friends of his?

It would seem to make more emotional sense that the haunting intrusion would be from the death of his team members with whom he shared personal connections and overall responsibility rather than from athletes with whom he shared a national empathy.

Perhaps a more organic place to intercut the athletes' death may be during Avner's final attempt to kill Salameh when he might ask himself if their deaths justify this act.

Monday, January 02, 2006

King Kong

Logline: A film crew stumbles across the island home of a great ape who falls in love with their lead actress.

The Good Idea: Naomi Watts charming a computer effects gorilla.

Why it didn't work:

Okay, I'll harp on the same thing many other critics have said. It's too long. Why is it too long? There is a sequence in Act II that belabors the point: the island is dangerous and you shouldn't be on it unless you have a gorilla for a body guard. While stunning, the sequence where the bugs and dinosaurs attack the seamen doesn't add anything to the plot. The gorilla has Ann and they can't get to her.

Where it did work was creating the emotional attachment between Kong and Ann. It was set up where she dances and juggles in the opening vaudeville act and paid off when she dances and juggles for Kong. We know why she's different from all the other women he's had and what actor doesn't love an appreciative audience?

Act III raises too many unanswered questions. Why didn't Ann participate in the Kong show? Why didn't Ann participate in Jack's play, after all, Jack did kiss her while they were on the ocean and wrote the damn play for her. If her love for Kong was inevitable, what kept them apart while they were in New York? If she did love Kong and didn't love Jack then what was the intended emotional impact of having Jack with her at the end? Jack believed he was rescuing her from Kong but in actuality, he wasn't, so Jack had nothing to gain. Once she turned down being in his play, the love triangle between Kong, Jack and Ann was over and so was the dramatic tension of "Will she choose Kong or Jack?" Unfortunately, the movie ended before we could see if Jack ever figured out she didn't love him.

If King Kong is a love story at its heart (and I believe it is) then somehow, climbing the Empire State Building had to read as some kind of sacrifice Kong made to save Ann. Storywise, Kong had to sacrifice himself to save Ann from some kind of jeopardy. Instead, it played out as Kong getting away from the army's attack and Ann happened to follow him. Since Ann wasn't in any jeopardy (other than incidental), her anguish at the end reads more like, "I couldn't save him," instead of, "He did this to save me."

Rumor Has It

Logline: A woman seeks out the man her mother had a fling with to determine if he is her father.

The Good Idea: Satisfy the long held (mistaken) belief that "The Graduate" needed a sequel and Jennifer Aniston opening a romantic comedy.

Why it didn't work.

There are two questions the movie asks which are answered very quickly and with few obstacles in the way. "Is the man my mother slept with before her wedding my father?" She finds out, yes. Next question, "Will she sleep with a man who slept with her mother and her mother before her?" Barely enough time is given to even pose the question before we see Jennifer Aniston in bed with Kevin Costner (actually just waking up alone, the morning after).

This sequence happened in roughly the first 15 minutes of Act II. So what's left? Predictability. Will her fiance find out? Yes. Will her family find out? Yes. Do we care that they will? Not really, because they're comic caricatures. Mark Ruffalo, as her fiance, is too good to believe, so we don't believe for a moment that he won't forgive her. Mena Suvari is far too giddy to be taken seriously when we meet her. Shirley Maclaine is wonderful as the acid tongued grandmother so we aren't too worried that anything can shock her or hurt her feelings. Richard Jenkins is very good in the thankless dad role who gives caring and understanding advice on cue. The bottom line is that Aniston's character acts with no consequences at stake.

Believability takes a holiday. Sure she's got a job but it never comes into play as an obstacle in that she never has to choose between finding Costner or her job.

The biggest flaw is the dialogue. Much of it is used to tell us what we already know. The audience knows more than the characters do and waiting for them to find out what we know becomes an exercise in saying, "get on with it."

In terms of pure romantic comedy structure, the end of Act II is when she loses her fiance. Unfortunately, since she is pursing Costner, he should be the one she loses. The success of a romantic comedy also hinges on having to choose between two pretty decent choices. Costner was never a serious contender for her long term affections.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Memoirs of a Geisha

Logline: In prewar Japan, a young girl is sold to a geisha house where she struggles to find love and success.

The Good Idea: Cinderella in a kimono. A lavish, exotic love story about a down trodden young woman.

Why it didn't work.

Most of Act I is devoted to Chiyo's quest to reunite with her sister after they've been sold. It's a strong desire and one the audience can readily empathize with. However, at the end of Act I, they separate and the voice over declares that she will never see her again. The dramatic tension created by the question "Will she ever find her sister?" evaporates and the film must find a new direction.

The new direction is the question, "Will Chiyo ever become a geisha?" Of course the answer is yes, but she achieves this goal too easily. We like our protagonists to struggle before they succeed so it feels like they've earned their victory ("wax on, wax off"). What was supposed to take years only took Chiyo weeks to master. The driving force behind her training did not come from the protagonist Chiyo but rather from Mameha, the head of the rival geisha house (who in turn is under instructions from the Chairman).

The diva of the geisha house, Hatsumomo, is wonderfully set up as her antagonist, representing a possible future for Chiyo (now Sayuri). However, Hatsumomo is not responsible for Chiyo's greatest betrayal. When Sayuri hatches a plan to sleep with an American solider to ward off a potential danna in Nobu, she is betrayed by Pumpkin who brings the Chairman (Sayuri's true love) instead.

Instead of facing her greatest enemy, Sayuri is blind-sided by her enemy's protege. What Pumpkin had to gain by this betrayal is never revealed but the betrayal is rendered moot because shortly afterwards, the Chairman confesses his love for Sayuri and how he engineered her education as a geisha. She wins his love but doesn't truly earn it.

In Romeo and Juliet, the family's blood feud keeps the lovers apart. The Chairman is a wealthy and powerful man. Sayuri is poor and can be had for a price. There really isn't anything to keep them apart. We are offered some notion of loyalty in that the Chairman owes Nobu his life and that he waited until Nobu's affections for Sayuri were dashed before he acted on those feelings. However, this felt more like an afterthought rather than as an ongoing dramatic tension throughout the picture (will the Chairman choose the love of a woman or loyalty to his best friend?).

A great opportunity was lost by skipping over the World War II section of the story. What other skills did Sayuri possess that helped her survive? She was sent into the mountains by the Chairman and waited for the end of the war. Meanwhile, Mameha sold her kimonos and started a hotel. This makes Mameha more interesting than Sayuri, a dangerous thing to do to your protagonist.

Sayuri's struggle doesn't add up to much. She gets the Chairman in the end but what did she have to give up? What piece of her soul did she lose? What new principles of life did she have to embrace?

The movie is unapolegetically Hollywood in that it follows the axiom, never let the facts get in the way of a good story. However, they forgot the good story.


Having studied the three act structure, narrative theory and fighting my own tendencies towards writing passive protagonists (as well as reading nearly every screenwriting book under the sun), I have a pretty good notion about what is expected in a commercial screenplay. But does meeting those expectations mean you'll have a good movie?

My plan is to comment on movies that I've seen in theaters and on DVDs and address why they didn't work for me using my understanding of screenwriting as a guide. Please feel free to agree or disagree. All opinions expressed by me are my own.

WARNING: Please be advised, I plan to discuss plot points in detail so if you haven't seen the movie and don't want the surprise ruined, stop here.