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Important tip for your action movie’s climax Jul 24
Captain America Poster

"I'm coming to save you, faceless multitude!"

Note: There’s a very minor Captain America SPOILER directly below, but it’s worth braving because this tip is a really good one.

Ready?

Let’s get the minor Captain America spoiler out of the way first. In the climax of the the movie, Captain America saves the world. Duh.

Okay now let’s get on to the tip. And this one’s a doozy. I’m tempted to call it “Save the Cat… Again!”

In an action movie’s third act, make sure your hero is saving someone specific.

Captain America was actually quite an enjoyable movie. The first half, especially, was very strong, and even emotionally moving at times. But the last act left me wanting for some reason. Sure, ol’ Cap was doing his action hero thing, and the stakes were high (the aforementioned saving of the world), but there was something missing.

And that’s when it hit me. There was no one specific to save.

“The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.”
– Joseph Stalin

It sounds paradoxical, but if your hero is fighting to save a faceless multitude (even if it’s millions of people), it’s less compelling than if he’s fighting to save even one character you know.

The best action movies

Think of all your favorite action movies. There’s always someone specific that needs to be rescued. It’s either the hero him/herself, or at least one character you know, or both.

If it’s only the hero him/herself that needs saving, then that means the hero needs to escape from a situation that they didn’t willfully put themselves into in the third act.

  • The Matrix – Neo had to save Morpheus and the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar (as well as defeat Agent Smith)
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark – Indy had to save Marion (as well as defeat the Nazis)
  • Die Hard – McClane had to save his wife (as well as defeat Hans Gruber)
  • Aliens – Ripley had to save Newt (and defeat the alien queen)
  • Alien – Ripley had to save herself and her cat (and defeat the alien)

Think how much weaker those movies would have been if they were only about defeating the bad guy(s). Keep that in mind when you’re writing the ending of your next action movie.

Can you think of any brilliant action movies that break my rule?


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5 Obvious Things TRON: LEGACY Got Wrong Jan 05

First things first… If you haven’t seen TRON: LEGACY,  and you like that whole surprisey thing, there are MASSIVE SPOILERS BELOW.

The long awaited sequel to the highly regarded Disney film got a lot of things right (e.g. Olivia Wilde + skin tight outfit = excellent) but there are some key things it also got wrong.

I’m not even talking about the subjective things, like why Cillian Murphy‘s character was only in the movie for 3 seconds. I’m talking about obvious things. Things that leave you a little sad, and a lot mystified, as to how they could possibly have ended up in a completed film with a production budget of 170 million dollars.

From least important to most important…

5. Fakes on a Crane

Like many movies that start off with glimmering potential, there’s a pivotal scene where you realize, “Ah crap, this isn’t going to be the ride I hoped it would be.”

That moment for me in TRON: LEGACY was when that damn security guard decided to step out on the crane. Did anyone believe that a $10/hour security guard would risk his life by walking out on a crane-arm, hundreds of feet in the air, just to apprehend a trespasser? Come on.

4. Would the real Tron Shady please stand up?

So the Tron character is disguised in a black outfit, with a dark motorcycle helmet for most of the movie. That’s cool. What’s not so cool is that so are a lot of the other bad guys.

Sure, Tron uses a double disc or whatever, but if we’re in a midst of an action-packed melee, or if Tron hasn’t yet whipped out his discs, it’s extremely difficult to tell Tron apart from the other guys in tight black outfits… with dark motorcycle helmets.

Tron?

Three or four times in the movie I thought, “They just killed Tron! I can’t believ– No… there he is again.” Couldn’t Tron have been given a simple stylized digital face? Or something  that would allow us to tell him apart much more readily?

3. A not-so-total eclipse of the heart

Tron… He’s a badass villain for 99% of the movie and then in the final action sequence he… what? Has a change of heart?

There was no build-up. No explanation of a restraining bolt, or reprogramming, or even that Tron was fighting against his constraints or true nature. Nope.

All we got at the end of the movie was a cheesy line about how he fights for users. If the filmmakers had taken the time for one simple beat showing Tron’s inner struggle during the movie, this moment would have been somewhat rewarding… or at least comprehensible. [Filmmakers’ homework assignment: This scene from RETURN OF THE JEDI]

2. Holdin’ out for a hero

We can all agree that Sam Flynn (son of Kevin Flynn) was the protagonist right? In successful action movies, where the heroes triumph, it’s the protagonist that should ultimately save the day.

No so in TRON: LEGACY. Sam Flynn was reduced to the R2-D2 role of mission support.

He was a tail gunner… He sprouted some wings inexplicably at one moment… but in the final sequence he didn’t do a whole hell of a lot.

I like that Kevin Flynn sacrificed himself to save his son/the world — but not to end an epic movie. To use another STAR WARS instructional — What if they had just rolled credits after Obi-Wan Kenobi died, and the crew simply escaped to freedom? It wouldn’t have been nearly as satisfying, right?

1. Young Jeff Bridges (AKA: The Digital Boom Mic)

Before there were digital touch-ups in post production, many movies were lessened by the accidental appearance of a boom microphone. You would see it, and it would completely take you out of the moment.

Well the horrible — I repeat, horrible — CGI used for young Jeff Bridges was the equivalent of seeing a boom mic every five minutes! It made it nearly impossible to suspend disbelief.

Haven’t a Clu

They must have known it was bad too. There were digital filters and darkened screens used to obscure the effect throughout the movie. But I can only ask why? Why was the effect so jaw-droppingly bad? Especially when the rest of the film was so visually stunning.

In THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, the effect for Brad Pitt was flawless. In WATCHMEN, Billy Crudup was seamlessly integrated with buff blue… parts. Hell, even with the limited budget of cable television it’s amazing what they’re able to do.

Put it all together, and it amounts to another big budget movie that squandered its potential — on things that should have been obvious to correct.

What did you think of TRON: LEGACY? Were there other obvious problems that you would have listed?


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Category: Movie Reviews  | 39 Comments
The Madness of Comedy Movie Ratings Aug 01

Invictus

InvictusA while back I watched Invictus, starring Morgan Freeman as President Nelson Mandela, and Matt Damon as the smallest rugby captain I’ve ever seen. (I know Invictus isn’t a comedy, but bear with me.)

I haven’t read the script (written by Anthony Peckham), but what I do know is that the resulting movie (directed by Clint Eastwood) was just okay. Fundamentally, it didn’t really know what kind of movie it wanted to be.

There were scenes of:

  • political struggle, suggestive of an inspiring story of great leadership… However, the Mandela in this movie seemed to only have one master plan — hope to hell that the national rugby team would win and therefore unite the country.
  • a rugby team striving to become winners, suggestive of an inspiring tale of underdogs that triumph against all odds… However, we only ever really got to know one character on the team. We also got a lot of inexplicable moments where somebody on some team would do something that we were supposed to care about. But if you have no idea what the rules of rugby are, you might as well be watching Blernsball.
  • security personnel working hard to keep Mandela safe, suggestive of a political assassination thriller… However, there were no real threats depicted in the movie. It was all contrived misdirection to add tension to otherwise tepid sequences.

Despite all that, the movie rates a 7.5 on IMDB.com. That’s fine. My beef isn’t with the Invictus rating per se — it’s with the fact that many of the best comedy movies of all time rank lower.

A Few Case Studies

Wedding CrashersHere are ten of my favorite comedies off the top of my head, sorted in descending order of IMDB Score. Only two of them beat Invictus.

Most of these movies routinely appear on “best comedies of all time” lists, were all box office successes, and produced some of the most quoted lines ever.

So why the low ratings for these, and other, comedy powerhouses?

My Theories

Perceived Level of Difficulty

In gymnastics, routines are judged based on the level of difficulty exhibited. If the level of difficulty of the moves being performed is high enough, the gymnast is eligible to receive a maximum score of 10. If the level of difficulty is lower, however, the gymnast may start out with a maximum score of 9 or 8.

Even though it’s a widely held truth in the film industry that the comedy genre is the most difficult to write (and get right), perhaps the perceived level of difficulty is lower than for other movies. After all, “It’s just a bunch of guys telling jokes and acting like idiots.”

When many people rate comedy movies, do they have a set hypothetical maximum score that’s less than 10?

There's Something About MaryPerceived Importance

Invictus (IMDB Score: 7.5) tells (or tries to tell) the story of an inspirational South African leader’s journey to unite his country. There’s Something About Mary (IMDB Score: 7.2) is about a bunch of guys who want to bone a hot chick.

The Road (IMDB Score: 7.5) is bleak story about a father and son struggling to survive in a post apocalyptic world. Wedding Crashers (IMDB Score: 7.2) is about a couple of guys who crash weddings so they can bone hot chicks.

Does a more serious plot imbue a movie with a greater perceived importance and qualify it for a higher score? (Or does a “boning hot chick(s)” main plot necessitate a sub 7.5 score?)

Hitting the Right Emotional and Intellectual Chords

Maybe it’s not the plot. Maybe it’s the emotional and intellectual range of  the movie.

Groundhog Day — the highest scoring movie on my spur-of-the-moment list — takes us on a complete journey with the Bill Murray character. When he’s trapped in his recurring day, we go through all five stages of grief with him — Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. We also feel sad for an old man who dies, warmed by the romance of the two leads and enlightened by the main character’s journey.

Perhaps strictly tickling our funny bones isn’t nearly as satisfying as pulling our heart strings and other emotional or intellectual chords. But then again Airplane! scores a 7.8, and that movie only has one speed — fast and furious comic gags.

Jackson PollackSubjective Nature of Comedy

Many people look at a Jackson Pollock painting and see pure genius. I just see paint dribbles. Who’s right? Art appreciation is subjective and so is comedy.

For every person who roared with laughter when Cameron Diaz used Ben Stiller’s… hair gel in There’s Something About Mary, perhaps there were just as many who found the comedy puerile and crass (in a bad way).

Do the rating scales tend to balance out for even the funniest comedies?

Conclusion

There are some great comedies that do indeed score higher than InvictusToy Story 3 (IMDB Score: 9.0), Monty Python and the Holy Grail (IMDB Score: 8.4), Back to the Future (IMDB Score: 8.4), The Princess Bride (IMDB Score: 8.1), The Hangover (IMDB Score: 7.9)… but they are few and far between.

Invariably when you ask someone what their favorite kind of movies are, they’ll include on the list, “comedies.” Yet, for whatever reason, comedy movies just don’t get the respect they deserve when it comes to ratings.

Do you have a favorite comedy that I haven’t mentioned? Punch it into IMDB. You may be surprised by its score. Conversely, would you rate your favorite comedy movies a 10? No? Why not?

As a rule, are the best comedies just not as good as the best non-comedies? I certainly don’t think that’s the case.

What are your thoughts? Do the best movies rise to the top of the ratings heap regardless of genre? Or are comedies judged more harshly than other movies?


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Category: Comedy, Movie Reviews  | 7 Comments
A Perfect Getaway May 26

Don’t worry — NO SPOILERS!

A Perfect GetawaySince watching A Perfect Getaway (written and directed by David Twohy) a few weeks back, I’ve been itching to write about it. This film actually managed to pull off something that many of my screenwriting friends and clients have been trying to pull off themselves…

It’s quite possible that you, yourself, may have thought about doing this certain daring something, at one point or another, in one of your scripts.

Something that to my knowledge had never been done before.

So what is this something?

Well unfortunately I can’t tell you that. That would ruin the best part of the movie.

On IMDB, A Perfect Getaway scores a respectable 6.5/10 — but really, if you’re a screenwriter, you’re probably going to enjoy it more than mainstream audiences. After all, you’ll be able to appreciate what was accomplished and the finer strokes needed to accomplish it.

Not only that, but one of the main characters is a screenwriter. And, right there in the movie, we get a lot of insider banter about the mechanics of writing a thriller. In fact the movie plays off of these various screenwriting conventions.

If you enjoy tense thrillers, hot bodies and tropical locations, I highly recommend checking this one out. Don’t let someone else ruin the surprise for you. As a screenwriter, or as a movie afficionado, you’ll really appreciate what Twohy was able to pull off. It’s one for the ages.

If you already know what it is I’m talking about, and know of any other movie in the history of cinema that’s done what this movie’s done, please send me an email and let me know.


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The Lovely Bones vs. Ghost May 02

The Lovely BonesThis isn’t really a review of The Lovely Bones, so much as it is a “What if?” game. That is, what if the movie Ghost had made some bad script choices?

Unlike all of my other reviews, this one is teeming with SPOILERS, so if you haven’t seen The Lovely Bones (or Ghost for that matter), and you want an unbiased viewing experience, click the Eject button now.

EJECTAfter looking forward to seeing The Lovely Bones on Blu-ray for many months, I finally got my chance a couple nights ago… and was completely underwhelmed. Some great novels just don’t work really well as movies (Dune anyone?), and The Lovely Bones is one of them. (Note: I haven’t read the novel, so I’m judging the movie on a standalone basis. I have no doubt that the novel is brilliant).

So why didn’t the movie work so well?

Let’s ask some “What If?” questions about the similar, yet hugely successful1, movie Ghost for the answers. Obviously the two movies are different kinds of ghost stories, but the differences illuminate why one was a hit and one was a box office disappointment.

Ghost: What if Patrick Swayze’s character (Sam Wheat) spent his time passively watching events unfold in the world of the living?

GhostIn The Lovely Bones, the murdered girl, Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) spends A LOT of time just hanging out in her gazebo watching events unfold. There are few if any active attempts to communicate with her loved ones or test her ability to interact with the living world.

In Ghost, Sam goes nuts trying to communicate with the living world, test his abilities and stop the killer. He finally learns how to manipulate objects, and possess a spiritualist, in a way that feels plausible for a ghost. It makes him a very active protagonist.

In movies, unless there’s a ton of voice-over, we don’t get to hear the protagonist’s thoughts and decisions. We can only go by what we see on film.

So if in a book, all of the active elements come from internal processes, you’ve got to translate that into viewable actions. Apart from a flickering reflection and some sort of emotional influence over her father in one scene, we didn’t get to see Susie as active, and the momentum ground to a halt.

Ghost: What if Molly Jensen (Demi Moore) was in no immediate danger?

In The Lovely Bones, months… years pass by without any immediate threats. Sure we get a few lascivious glances from Stanley Tucci’s character, but he’s not actively pursuing anyone.

There’s one scene where we see him creating a hunter’s blind — presumably to stalk another victim. But which victim? Maybe he’s going after Susie’s sister. Maybe not. I shouldn’t need to read the book to find that out.

In Ghost, we know that Molly is in danger. And it doesn’t come after months of seeing Sam lurking about in an ethereal plane. It happens right away. The threat is immediate, the stakes are high, the tension is ratcheted up, the pace is quickened and the movie is more thrilling.

Ghost: What if Sam spent much of his screen time in a dreamlike world?

In The Lovely Bones, Susie walks through a forest that changes seasons with every second, runs around on a Super Mario Galaxy planet, and frollicks in other purgatorial dreamscapes with lots of icicles. Visually, it’s all very cool, but little of it moves the plot forward.

In Ghost, Sam spends his time more wisely (at least in terms of the audience’s benefit), learning the rules of his world. He does all the things that we’d try to do — especially if there were hints as to his ability to interact with that world.

If you spend too much time with a protagonist in their own dream-world, the tension evaporates because, well… anything’s possible, and nothing can happen to the character because she’s already dead. This was the main problem of the movie, What Dreams May Come (Production Budget: $85 million/Domestic Gross: $55,382,927)

Ghost: What if at the end of the movie the bad guy got away and Molly got no closure?

Stanley TucciThere are lots of screenwriting axioms, but “Make sure you have a strong ending” must be near the top of the list. The Usual Suspects is a really good movie, but the ending makes it the stuff of legend. Unforgiven is a really good movie, but the ending provides a lasting visceral punch.

The ending of The Lovely Bones leaves much to be desired.

There’s a wonderful scene where Susie’s sister breaks into Tucci’s home to uncover evidence that he’s the killer. All of that scene’s power is immediately undone by the ludicrous scene that follows.

Susie’s sister rushes into her house, seconds after being chased by Tucci, with evidence of his involvement in her sister’s death. And what happens? Does she breathlessly explain how she was nearly captured by a child killer and that he might be getting away or, worse yet, still chasing her and possibly endangering the family?

Nope, she waits until after her mom’s sudden homecoming. And even then, she hesitates before showing her grandma the evidence. I’m sorry, but narrowly escaping from your sister’s killer, with evidence of his crime, trumps the family reunion.

From there it gets worse.

Tucci gets away and there’s a ridiculous scene where he drops off the safe with Susie’s remains inside to a sinkhole. Instead of parking next to the sinkhole, he parks like 100 feet away. He then has to laboriously flip the damn safe end over end for about 5 minutes to reach the hole. I think it was meant to build suspense, but it just came across as laughably unrealistic.

What’s worse, our protagonist rushes back to the scene, giving us hope that she’s going to do something to stop him from disposing of the evidence. Instead she inhabits the body of an older girl for that last kiss she never got — a kiss from a now much older man.

Eventually Tucci meets his end, but Susie’s family doesn’t find out. Does anyone ever find out?

Final Thoughts

The setup of the movie is good. But other than the strong acting performances, the film is wholly unsatisfying.

I respect directors that attempt to be true to source material, but maybe there are some stories that do not translate well to the silver screen. I’m a big Peter Jackson fan, but my feeling is that he spent too much time worrying about the fantastical worlds, to the detriment of the story’s narrative.

What can I say? It ain’t Ghost.

Have you seen The Lovely Bones? Read the book? What are your thoughts?


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  1. Production Budget of Ghost: $22 million/Domestic Gross: $217,631,306
    Production Budget of The Lovely Bones: $65 million/Domestic Gross: $44,028,238
    (all figures via boxofficemojo.com)
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Category: Movie Reviews  | 5 Comments