Tag Archives: Spiritual Awakening in Movies

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.

Moviecappa One Year Anniversary!!

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Hot damn!  Moviecappa is One year old!  I missed it by two days, it was actually on May 10th, 2012 that I first started this site.  I for one am very grateful that I have kept this site going for that long.  I started this site because I have always had running commentary in my head when I go to the movies as well as when I see what goes on in the industry.  It’s a place for me to talk about why I think the movies are important, and what we can do to see them get better.  It’s also been my vision that this could be a place for filmmakers to come and talk about movies, and discuss the thing we want most out of them:  good storytelling.  This site was created out of passion, and I hope to see more discussion and bigger things to come for this site in the future.  If you have been an ongoing reader of the site, thank you so much for coming back and for your support!  Greater things are yet to come!  So stay tuned!

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Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) Dir. William Shatner

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After the popularity of Star Trek IV, it’s a shame that the most unpopular Trek film had to follow with Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.  For all intents and purposes it has to be said that, yes, Star Trek V is a terrible, awful film.  But I like it.  Yes, it’s pretty stupid, with Kirk, Spock and McCoy singing Row Row Row Your Boat.  Yes, the whole idea of the Starship on a journey to find God is pretty silly and redundant.  But for all its dumbness, I feel a certain nostalgic connection with this film.  My parents took me to all the other Star Trek films, but I was too young to remember them.  This is the first Star Trek feature I saw and actually remembered.  I was about 8 years old when this movie came out.  I knew enough to know it wasn’t a great movie.  But for what its worth I liked it.  And to this day, I think it’s a underrated.  I could watch this movie more times than the boring and long winded Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  It’s certainly more tolerable to me than the mediocre Star Trek: Nemesis.  This is definitely a crappy film.  But I did learn something while I was in film school…you are allowed to enjoy shit, as long as you recognize in the back of your mind its shit.  Star Trek V is a shitty film.  But I love it.

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I don’t know exactly on what level this movie appeals to me.  Maybe it’s the search for God aspect that I find intriguing.  I always found it funny that the Great Barrier might have supposedly been this far off place, but with the time they spend traveling it seems like it’s right on their back doorstep.  They’re also just as surprised when they manage to fly a starship through it.  You’d think somebody would have sent a probe in to analyze the interior.  Oh well.  There’s logic gaps galore in its story.  The main threat of the Klingons is some punk kid Klingon who for some reason has enough power to overrule his elder Klingon crew who clearly know he’s an idiot for trying to take on Captain Kirk.  There’s Sybok, whose power to mind control people is never really explained.  There isn’t really much in the way of character work either.  I don’t think anyone really learns anything from this experience, except for Sybok who finds out he was duped this whole time, and whose sacrifice doesn’t really do squat to stop the alien “God”.  I suppose you could say it’s the adventure nobody really asked for and it turned out nobody needed after all.  Nobody’s really on a search to renew their faith.  It’s basically an inconsequential haphazard Star Trek adventure.

But I think there has to be at least one Star Trek film that takes us into the realm of the silly idea.  After all, The Original Series was loaded with silly episodes (Spock’s Brain anyone?), or the one where we discover the Greek Gods are actually aliens that came to Greece long ago.  Tribbles.  Need I say more?  This is the one reason I like this film so much…because it is a silly pointless adventure.  I don’t think it really takes itself that seriously either.  It’s got the best, most silly line in all of Star Trek.  Kirks, “What does God need with a Starship?”  There is the one thing that I think keeps this film together in the spirit of Star Trek, and it’s the bonding between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy.  For all the people who hate the sing a long campfire scene, it’s a silly scene yes.  But the friendship and bond between these men is true to the series.  Kirk brings up some sentiments that he keeps them around because he feels its his fate to die alone.  It’s why I find some charm in the end, after Spock saves Kirk from the alien presence at the end, Kirk says to Spock, “I thought I was going to die alone.” Spock: “Impossible.  You were never alone.”  These guys are family.

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It’s kind of funny too that the Enterprise falling apart seems like a perfect metaphor for this movie, where everything is broken and nothing really works right.  You almost have to wonder if this might have been a nod to the film itself.  To be just outright bad as a film is a gift that only The Original Series could bring.  You don’t find enough episodes that are bad in TNG, but worse they are just mediocre.  A mediocre film to me is far worse than a film that’s just straight bad.  With a mediocre film, there’s always a promising idea but poor execution and not firing on all thrusters.  A bad film will fire on all thrusters and wind up blowing up the ship.  Some films are just made that way.  But while the thing is going down in flames….it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the ride.

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This film was also getting near the end of the Original Series films, and you can see the cast was starting to wind down and probably wanted to make a film that didn’t have to be taken too seriously.  I actually think The Undiscovered Country has more of the “We don’t give a shit anymore” feel from the cast than this film does, despite having a better story.  But I always felt that I could take the worst Star Trek film over the worst Star Wars prequels any day.  At least there’s some attempts at acting in this movie.

Overall my consensus is, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is a giant turd.  And what a beautiful, glorious flaming turd it is too.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) Dir. Robert Wise

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On the heels of a new J.J. Abrams Star Trek film, I’ve decided that I’m going to watch and review all the Star Trek films in order, leading up to the release of the new film.  To be perfectly honest, I don’t have terribly high hopes for the new Star Trek just based on the advertising campaign, and I’m not really thrilled of the notion of showing a post apocalyptic version of Star Trek.  But it is Star Trek, and I am a fan, so will be seeing it.  Somehow watching all of the other films beforehand might help me build my immunity in case the new film is a travesty.  At any rate, I hope you enjoy this series leading up to the new films release!

Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a film I haven’t seen in a while and probably for good reason.  It’s easily the slowest and most difficult Star Trek film to sit through.  That doesn’t mean it’s a bad film though.  It’s got some interesting elements of science fiction, particularly the return of the Voyager spacecraft as an emerged consciousness.  This Trek film also sports the best model work out of all the Trek films (yes, even the new ones).  But the visual effects are part of the films difficulty as for many sequences we have to sit through what feels like several minutes just showing off the Enterprise, or even longer scenes of of the Enterprise moving through the alien spacecraft.  It’s all pretty to watch, but it feels like it drags the story to a snails pace, when our biggest concerns should be with the characters and their personal issues.

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Thankfully the film picks up after the arrival of Dr. McCoy, and Deforrest Kelly adds a lot of much needed lightness and humor.  This Star Trek film I found to be the most difficult to connect with the characters, in that so much time is spent in between the spectacle and trying to move the story forward that I felt it difficult to engage with any one characters issue.  It feels like we’re scattered equally among separate character motivations, and there isn’t anyone in particular that’s a driving force for the film.  Kirk is rusty behind the wheel of his ship, having not served as Captain for over two years.  His problems “competing” with Commander Dekker seem somewhat petty.  It’s not like Star Trek 2, where more attention is focused on Kirk’s aging and dealing with his mortality, as well as his usefulness to Starfleet.  This film taps into that a little bit, but I never get enough of the sense of Kirk leading the way here.

As for Spock, he’s got problems of his own, being turned down in a ritual to purge himself of all emotion.  Spock joins the mission to seek out this alien threat, which is based in logic, for his own search for meaning.  There is even some wonder among the crew if Spock’s personal ulterior motives might end up sabotaging the mission.    But again, there is a lack of drive in the story to give us more investment in the kind of mythological heroes journey he undergoes here.  It’s that lack of who and what to focus on that doesn’t do much to bring everything together by the end of the film.  There was something about Spock’s story that didn’t make a lot of sense to me.  Why is this journey to find himself happening for him at practically middle age (ignoring for a moment the Vulcan’s prolonged lifespan)?  If this ritual of his to find his life purpose were happening at a younger age, maybe it would be understandable about what he’s going through to want to have all emotion purged.  But for a character like Spock to be struggling and moping that he doesn’t know who he is seems out of touch for the character we know who is wise beyond his years.  The message seems almost too obvious by the end of the film, about logic embracing with emotion and humanity.  This seems like something he would already know about himself, and if anything, he would have been put to more use serving as a guide for the Voyager entity to understand its purpose than trying to figure out his personal problems.

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One of the more interesting characters for me was Captain Decker (Stephen Collins), who holds his own as a commander, and thankfully the writers never stoop to giving him a cocky attitude by comparison to Kirk.  Decker actually makes all the right decisions when he knows more about the ships newer operations than Kirk.  However, we aren’t given enough time in the film to really feel much for his relationship with Ilia, especially to make their sacrifices at the end more powerful.  We get the two have a relationship and a history, but the film doesn’t do enough to explore it as there’s just too much else going on.  There just doesn’t feel like much behind the sacrifice to mean more than just the message of technology and humanity embracing.

I find it interesting that during this period with the rise of computer technology, there were many films that talked about the debate of whether technology would overrun us or if humanity would prevail.  We saw this previously with Star Wars with Luke having to shut off the machine and trust his instincts.  I’m also reminded of Tron and the image of Flynn at the end diving into the MCP, and the two merging to become one.  Although I think Tron makes a bigger connection thematically than Star Trek: The Motion Picture does.  This film also seems more bogged down in seriousness than other Star Trek films, which is why Bones is so desperately needed by the time he shows up.  The aging Trek crew doesn’t hit their stride until the next film came along, which makes this film, for me, the most difficult to sit through.  I know for most people they say Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is the worst Trek, but I actually love that film.  I admit it’s a terrible film, but I actually love it for its stupidity and outrageousness, and most of all, to me, it’s still more fun than this film.  There’s plenty of dazzling visuals in this movie, and it achieves some of the greatest model work in motion picture history.  But the plodding, serious story, and too much time spent glamoring on visual effects shots over moving things forward gets in the way of what could have been a more fun and engaging science fiction story.

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Cinecon 49!

49film_couldhappenHey everyone!  Cinecon 49 is coming up soon!  For those who don’t know, Cinecon is a terrific classic film festival held every year at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, and features fantastic prints of some rare Hollywood treasures, some of which are so good and yet currently unavailable on DVD.  This is your one place to see them!  The festival this year is held Labor Day weekend, from August 29th to September 2nd.  Already the site has updated with some of the films they will be showing this year. Check it out here!

Toy Story (1995) Dir. John Lasseter

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I took a great class yesterday from Marshall Vandruff, a terrific artist and teacher. The class was a Visual Storytelling Analysis of the film Toy Story, where we went through the entire film, stopping after each sequence and discussing the story structure and emotional line of the film. It was an absolutely terrific seminar. I wanted to talk a little bit about Toy Story as a film in general, because it really is such a great, well told story.  This is a film where the story was allowed to be what it should have been.  There was a tremendous amount of searching to find the film this would eventually become, but this movie turned out to be the ultimate game changer for animation.  What’s even more astounding is that this film does not feel dated in the slightest.  While the animation and visuals would technically be considered “primitive” to what CG films can do know, Toy Story was still approached with a wonderful artistic eye, and the visuals are still just as wonderful and aesthetically pleasing to the eye as it was when it first premiered.

I was 14 when Toy Story first came out.  From what I do remember about seeing the film, I remember how much I liked it although I didn’t know the impact it would have that one day CG would completely take over the animation field.  I never saw myself wanting to go into a career in CG after this, but I saw it as the use of a different medium.  The story was great, and the film itself was a lot of fun.  There was one particular scene that hit me pretty hard when I first saw it, and still today it’s my favorite scene in the whole film.  It’s basically the fall of Buzz Lightyear when he discovers that he’s not a space ranger, just “an insignificant stupid little toy”.  It’s his fall from grace and his discovery that the world was never what he imagined it would be.  The scene I refer to in this is where Buzz and Woody are talking in the middle of the night at Sid’s house and Woody is trying to get Buzz to help him escape.  Buzz just sits their alone with his sad line, “I can’t help.  I can’t help anybody.”  It’s been a few years since I’ve watched this film, but yesterday as I watched the film I couldn’t help but be moved to tears by this sequence.  Not in a heavy depressed way, but as the scene plays out, the two of them have reached a penultimate moment where they couldn’t get any lower and two guys that were once enemies finally reach common ground.  It’s a beautiful scene.  And when Buzz finally sees the words “Andy” on his shoe and gets the message that there is a new, better life for him out there, you see a character that finds bliss in that moment.

There’s a lot of great visual storytelling devices in this movie.  I’ve always liked the opening sequence with Andy playing with his toys.  The camera is always kept at the Toy’s point of view, even though they are in “play mode”, meaning they don’t move.  When we’re introduced to Woody, who appears to us as just an ordinary toy, the camera keeps everything so that we see what he sees in his head, from going down the stair railing to spinning in the chair with Andy.  One of the interesting things that was pointed out when I was in the class was an idea that started out as a cliche joke and goes on to become an important part of the story.  The scene starts with the army men going to investigate the new birthday presents Andy is getting.  After one of them gets crushed, the wounded soldier shouts out “Go on without me!” to which the Army captain returns and says, “A good soldier never leaves a man behind!”  This theme is echoed through to the final sequence in the film, where twice Woody and Buzz make self sacrifices for each other.  For instance, the first time Buzz is caught in a fence as the moving van is leaving, and he shouts to Woody, “Go on, I’ll catch up”, to which Woody who is right at his moment of victory, decides to jump down and help Buzz.  Then the second time it happens, Woody’s leg is caught in the dogs mouth and he cries out to Buzz, “Take care of Andy for me!”, to which Buzz shouts No! and jumps on the dog, pulling up and snapping its eyelids.

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From a structural standpoint it was interesting to see how so many different elements are set up and paid off later in the movie.  The story structure of this film is a solid as they come.  The sequels were never quite the same when it came to this film, and one of the things I enjoyed about this film was Mr. Potato Head, who is much more of a smart ass, and while he’s not a villain, he is a bit more of an antagonist figure here.  A part of it is that he’s somewhat jealous of Woody’s position as Andy’s favorite toy, and manages to convince the other toys not to let Woody come back to them after what he did to Buzz.  While Potato Head makes some good points, at the same time, you can’t help but feel his motives are a little ulterior even if he’s not conscieous about what he’s doing.  There’s a part of him that already wants Woody to go away anyway, just because Woody decided to be self-proclaimed leader of the toys.  Potato head even gets a bit of comeuppance at the end of the film when the race car flies into him and his body parts scatter all over the place.  And then of course, he gets a happy ending when he finally gets Ms. Potato Head!

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I’ve always had problems with the sequels for this film, because to me the idea of the toys getting replaced because their masters grew up or moved on…for some reason that story was never important to me.  It’s almost like it comes to a shock to all the toys that their master is going to grow up, when I think if every toy before hand had to deal with this, you’d think toys would have some plan or initiative on what to do when they had to move on to another master.  You’d think instead of “holding on” to each other, that one day they would split up and move on to other people, and one day eventually end up in the trash pile.  But that’s just what their existence is.  It seems like they’re not okay with the idea of dying or moving on.  I was more interested in the first Toy Story because it dealt with the toys dealing with ordinary problems that we can relate to as people.  The jealousy of a new toy coming into the picture when Buzz arrives, which angers Woody, is very human and a story we can all relate to when somebody comes into our lives we didn’t ask for and we don’t know how to deal when that person comes in with newer or more impressive ideas than the old toy.  Some of the aspects we talked about in this film were the metaphors about how the space race came in during the 60’s and took over when before every kid was interested in cowboys and Indians and then suddenly everyone was into space and astronauts.  All of this helps to build on a great rivalry with the characters.

Toy Story will always be one of Pixar’s greatest triumphs.  The story is so solid as well because the filmmakers had no choice but to go in that direction.  They had to accept and allow the story to unfold and be what it wanted to be.  It’s disappointing to me that the rest of the Pixar films (at least everything after The Incredibles) couldn’t be as on par and allow their films to bloom in the way that Toy Story does.  It’s just a great solid film, and one of my favorite animated films ever made.

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