Tag Archives: drama

A Good Story Well Told

0HollywoodI thought I’d take some time to talk about what I look for when writing about movies, and where my thinking goes as a result.  I have always been a fan of great movies, but more importantly I am more attracted to good storytelling in cinema.  Looking back on the films I liked and disliked as a kid, I’ve found it rare that I would revisit a film I liked growing up only to find that the movie wasn’t in fact good at all.  A lot of times there are movies that do end up being absolute crap, but our nostalgic love for the film is what allows us to enjoy it even as adults.  To be honest, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying crap.  The movie may be terrible, but there are elements to the main characters journey, or sometimes there are particular elements to the film that draw us in, even if it was a terribly executed idea.

As a kid I was pretty lucky when it came to seeing movies.  I saw everything, and my parents were pretty liberal about the movies they took me to see.  I saw everything from G to R rated features.  The only movies my parents didn’t take me to were hard R rated films that featured an over abundance of language or we’re overly violent and scary.  I was never really big into slasher horror flicks or anything like that.  But other than that, I was exposed to a wide variety of storytelling.  This is where my own emotional intuition would kick in about whether I thought a movie was good or not.  It depended on how much a movie would captivate me and I would be along for the adventure.  Even if I didn’t fully understand the story, there would be some part of the film that would captivate me, like a problem the main character was having that I could identify with and the problem leads them on a personal quest.  I remember seeing a movie like Field of Dreams for instance and being drawn in by the haunting voice coming from the cornfields.  At the same time that child-like wonder and curiosity the main character would feel took hold of me.  I wanted to see where building this baseball field would take him and discover along the way the problems that would get in the way (for instance, the danger of losing all his money and his farm to find out where the voice was leading him).

My point being that great storytelling can captivate us on all levels.  You don’t need to be an adult to understand all aspects of a story.  But as a kid, even if I didn’t understand all the stuff that was over my head, I could tell whether a story was working or not simply by how much I engaged with the main character.  For all of us who knew movies that were great when we were young, such as the films of Steven Spielberg, these were films that never catered to children.  But as kids we were drawn in by the powerful, emotional journey of its main characters.  The kids that were in these movies acted like real kids and were believable.  A story in my opinion doesn’t have to be perfect plot wise.  I don’t always pay attention to the structure of the film.  But my main concern is if the main character has a problem I can identify with, and if the film challenges the character enough so they can find balance again by the end of the story.  Often times, I will watch a movie and see a character presented with a problem, but then the problem gets put on hold several times during the film while the action takes over.  In essence, if the conflict is not in support of the main characters problem, my feeling is that the story gets put on hold while the main character fights a bunch of bad guys.  Sometimes the story doesn’t take itself seriously enough for us to believe in what the characters are trying to accomplish.  I was terribly annoyed after seeing Iron Man 3, because the story kept reducing Tony’s problems into a joke, never giving us a chance to take seriously his panic attacks and PTSD.  None of these crippling problems ever plays a part when Tony is off fighting bad guys.  It never seems to stop him from getting the job done.  If we’re not going to see his personal problems affecting him on the job, how are we expected to care about what he’s going through?  Even the main villain that was advertised for the film as a serious threat is reduced to a comic buffoon.  It’s not the movie it was promised to be.

GQ When a film sets itself up for one thing and then takes us off course in a completely different direction, it looses me.  It’s not that I don’t appreciate spoilers or surprises that take the story in a new direction, but the surprise should be in support of the arc of the main character.  I find that spoiler “surprise” moments in big summer movies now are actually red herrings just to make the story appear more compelling than it actually is.  It has nothing to do with what the audience is going through, it’s a formulaic throwing a wrench in the machine, giving the film a bunch of twists and turns that just distract us from the fact that the story has nothing to say to begin with.  I can tell on an instinctive level whether or not a story is drawing me in, or if the main character has a compelling problem that I will want to see resolved (or even fails) in achieving their internal goals.

The other thing that is really important to me is that I like to see stories that end.  I’m not a fan of franchises because they are not written with the goal in mind to resolve the characters issues, but to keep the story going and going like a soap opera, where one aspect of the adventure might get resolved, and suddenly a new problem takes its place.  In this manner, the character loses his or her ability to find balance when their lives are written to always be out of balance.  I’m not speaking of the format of a TV series, where we are accustomed to this sort of writing, but even in a series, by the end of the show we hope the characters will find some sort of peace within themselves.  The same goes for movies.  A characters life can fall even more out of balance by the end of the story, or reach a dead end, but if we are not compelled by the journey they are taking, then we are simply watching characters go through the motions without an engaging driving force that makes us want to see them succeed.

When I am riding this emotional wave, it lets me know when a movie is going strong.  There is an honest sincerity to the character’s journey that enables me to connect with them.  In other words, it’s just good storytelling.  It’s also what keeps us coming back for more when we feel we can learn new things from re-experiencing the characters journey.  As a storyteller, these are not just the things I look for when watching a movie, it’s what I strive to accomplish in my own work.  A good story is one that’s well told.  Not one that is hampered by distractions.

The Dead Zone (1983) Dir. David Cronenberg


I’m taking a short break before returning to my Star Trek reviews, but I thought I’d take time to talk about a film I saw recently, The Dead Zone.  It’s directed by David Cronenberg, based on the Stephen King novel and stars Christopher Walken.  If there ever a reason to do a remake, this is one story I’d like to see done right.  I’ve seen some of the Michael Pillar TV series, which isn’t that compelling, and as far as this movie goes I wasn’t that impressed with it.  It’s an interesting idea, and in good Stephen King fashion it has the capacity to go to some dark compelling places.  But I found the movie the Dead Zone to be a little too episodic, and choppy in its narrative to sustain its feature length.


From what I understand, during this time Stephen King wasn’t terribly happy with a lot of the movie adaptations made from his novels.  After seeing this film I really don’t blame him.  There’s nothing wrong with showing the different aspects of how Johnny Smith (Walken) is able to use his abilities, but at times the film seems to have trouble building the narrative for its main character.  At times I found the story would slow down too often while we wait for something to happen.  Probably the best sequence in the film is the police search for a local murderer, and I thought there was a great use of haunting imagery.  I especially liked the ending of the sequence where the killer commits suicide impaling his mouth on a pair of sharp scissors.  But when it comes to the films biggest sequence, where Johnny has to stop a corrupt senator from becoming president and starting World War 3…what originally was a great idea quickly turns into a cartoonish scenario.  I didn’t like how Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen) was almost cartoonishly evil when we see him as president about to let the missiles fly.  It’s a shame because the rest of the film is grounded in a more solid reality, and there is a lack of motivation or sympathy to show Stillson as a more believable character.  Making him evil makes it too easy for Walkin to kill him.  Even the vision of Stillson after he’s ruined his career committing suicide is a bit on the silly side.  It just doesn’t seem like enough time was spent to develop him into a more rounded character.

Almost just as forgettable is Johnny’s relationship with his former girlfriend Sarah, with whom he was going to marry before getting into an accident and being stuck in a five year coma.  The drama starts out interestingly enough, but seems to get put on hold as soon as Johnny sleeps with her, and might I add, behind the back of her current husband.  He never finds out, which I found a little annoying, which just made Sarah disloyal to her current lover.  She doesn’t play any further part in the story after that, apart from returning after Johnny’s been killed at the end.  We wind up losing their storyline halfway through the film.


The Dead Zone has a few enjoyable moments.  I liked Johnny’s relationship with the young rich boy, with whom he becomes a mentor.  I liked some of the imagery when Johnny sees into the future, present, or past.  The discovery of the girl in the burning house is great.  I also enjoyed the presence of Dr. Weizak (Herbert Lom) even though he seems pretty underutilized in the story.  But one of the big problems is that Johnny discovers the Dead Zone a little late in the film, where it could become more of a plot device to help him change events as they happen.  The story amounts overall to a kind of slice of life story with Johnny basically going through the motions, and nothing outside of that bringing all of these events together.  Also in my opinion, I thought they killed off Johnny’s mother too quickly, played by the great Colleen Dewhurst.  The first Act of the film sets up everything pretty well and promises us an interesting ride, but then somewhere along the way it starts to lose itself, which finally leads us to the buffoonish, cartoon climax.  The film was not too big a disappointment, and as a fan of King, I found some of the darker elements intriguing.  But overall the movie was just lacking, and if a remake is every considered, I hope eventually they will figure out a way to get it right.


Olympus Has Fallen (2013) Dir. Antoine Fuqua


Olympus Has Fallen is pretty much in the category of what I like to refer to as the scripted thriller.  I use the term scripted because that’s pretty much what the movie feels like, where none of the dialogue comes out naturally or sounds like how people actually talk in real life.  Instead, all the dialogue is on the nose.  All aspects of the script are categorized:  this is the funny moment, the serious drama moment, the action moment, the quirky silly moment, etc.  I similarly remember this feeling when I saw the film Patriot Games, starring Harrison Ford, another example of a film where the script is boiled down into a typical cliche Hollywood formula script.  Olympus Has Fallen has been referred by most people as “Die Hard in the White House”, except this movie is what happens when you take a script like Die Hard and yank out all the personality, all of the fun things that make the characters who they are, and take away any and all consequences that would give you any reason to care about what’s happening on the screen.

I pretty much knew what I was in for after watching the first two minutes of the films Camp David scenes.  The one thing I had expected by then was that the film was going to play it safe all the way through.  In the opening sequence, the first lady is killed in a freak car accident, which puts a lot of guilt on secret service agent Mike Benning (Gerard Butler), who is is close friends with the President (Aaron Eckhart), and Mike essentially is retired to an office position after his failure to rescue the first lady.  The personality of the characters is all pretty much one note.  Everyone walks through their role with no changes in their personality.  Nothing about them is really tested based on the events of the film.  Later in the main story, the White House is taken over by Korean terrorists, and the villain Kang, who is the leader of the operation, is absolutely all business.  Seriously, you don’t get a hint of what this guy feels outside of being the straight laced villain.  Unlike say Hans Gruber from Die Hard, who was not only devious, but he actually had a kind of sense of humor, and on top of that he was an expert at manipulating everyone in sight.  We get none of that sense of fun out of Kang.


As for Mike Benning, who is in the John McClaine role as the lone, ex secret service agent who has to save the White House.  Apart from the chance of getting his job back as a secret service agent through this ordeal, Benning never has anything serious at stake.  His journey through the film plays out like fulfilling objectives in a video game.  Save the presidents son.  Check.  Take out mole secret agent.  Check.  Take out the villain and save the president.  Check.  The problem here is that everything Mike accomplishes never comes with any consequences.  For instance, Mike manages to go in and save the presidents son.  Okay.  But what does saving his son say about him as a character?  If it’s just going to play out and the kid just manages to be rescued, how is that going to affect anyone in the film?  The answer is, it doesn’t.  The kid is saved without anyone (apart from the terrorists) falling victim to serious harm.  What if Mike failed to save the first kid after already failing to save the first lady?  The question is never really brought up.  When the kid is saved, Mike simply moves on to the next objective.  All the while we’re never given any reason as to what all of this means to anyone.  The agent (Dylan McDermontt) who goes rogue…what’s his motivation for turning against the president apart from not liking his political strategies?  The film never says.  Even when Mike gets him to “do the right thing” and tell Kang that Mike is dead, we never know what the purpose of this was or how the relationship affects the film.  Because about 10 minutes later, Mike just arbitrarily reveals to Kang that he’s alive.  So what was the point of trying to hide himself?

The other thing I want to point out is the president, played by Eckhart, who comes off to me as a man who has absolutely no faith in himself or the universe.  There’s this funny line that’s always said in movies like this: “The United States doesn’t negotiate with terrorists.”  Yet negotiating almost always happens in these movies!  The president tries to save his cabinet members by ordering them to give the destruct codes for the nuclear missles to the terrorists.  Umm….why would you do that?  His cabinet members are prepared to die to save the United States.  They know what they’ve signed up for.  In a real life scenario, the terrorists would have his cabinet members killed anyway after they got the launch codes.  The point is even made…if the terrorists actually killed these people, they lose getting the launch codes.  So what if they have to endure pain, I think its worth it to keep millions of American lives safe.

As for Morgan Freeman…well…unfortunately he’s given nothing interesting to do in this film.  He steps in as House Speaker to be acting president (although I can’t recall where the vice president is during all this), but he pretty much does his job without any crucial problems getting in the way, apart from reacting to terrorists destroying the United States.  I also think, regarding the first lady, the reason she’s killed in the beginning is simply to write her out of the script.  The script makes it sound like the characters are going to be impacted, but her death never resolves anything except to set up a reason for Mike to lose his job and then work to get it back again by the end of the movie.  Really, she’s killed just to be one less body the writers wanted to focus on, and instead the focus is shifted to saving the presidents son.  Mike’s wife, who is a nurse at a hospital, also has nothing to contribute to the film except cutting back to her once in awhile for him to “check in” with her.  The terrorists bluff about knowing about his wife and threatening to get her, but they make no attempt to kidnap her or cause her any real harm.


So is there anything especially good about Olympus Has Fallen?  Well, the 20 minute action take out of The White House is entertaining, but again, because we have no real emotional investment in the characters, the action sequences are all spectacle.  I found some of it even filmed in confuse-o-vision, making it difficult to track whose killing who.  I’d also forgot occasionally about certain characters that were supposed to be important, but we’re given nothing out of their personalities to latch on to or hold our interest.  The film overall could be regarded as stupid fun, but even the problem with that is that the best films that are dumb actually acknowledge themselves as being silly.  In the case of this film, it tries to play everything seriously, and it just doesn’t work.  The characters make so many dumb decisions throughout the movie that we can’t really take what’s happening with any sense of reality.

So in a nutshell, you can pass on Olympus Has Fallen.  The script just doesn’t play with any sense of believability, including the dialogue, with which nobody talks to each other like normal human beings.  It’s simply a mediocre outing.