Monday, July 28, 2008

12 Things All Amateur Screenwriters Should Know

Hey guys,

This hilarious list, which was originally posted on a bulletin board on
TriggerStreet, was so good I had to share it. It was written by friend and fellow screenwriter, Doc Strange, whose scripts (mostly comedies) have earned him finalist nods in a variety of screenwriting contests. You can read his scripts here. He also participated in my Love script with a wonderful short called “Might As Well Face It,” in which he made a parallel between an unhealthy relationship and trying to give up cigarettes. You can learn more about him at his website.

I’m also sharing the photo of him and his wife below, because, I don’t know. For one thing, it’s a little known fact that screenwriters are great lovers. Plus, she makes him look good. Hehehe

Hope you enjoy it.



I've been patrolling around message boards, reading books and perusing magazine articles for many years now trying to soak up as much information as I could about the business of screenwriting.

After I had given myself some time to process this information, I have been able to put together a list of 12 hints, tips and pieces of advice that I think every struggling screenwriter should know.

This is my attempt to clear up any misconceptions about how to pursue your career as a writer:

1) Nowadays, capitalizing sounds has fallen out of favor, so make sure you CAP all of them because that is what producers like to see.

2) Chances are that you won't sell a screenplay until you've made a name for yourself by selling a screenplay.

3) Always use a standardized three-act structure or some variation of it that resembles the films you see in the theaters because you can't get something produced if it's not original.

4) Stereotypes are not funny - audiences like to see characters that are derived from real life.

5) Cliches never work and have no place in screenwriting because your audience wants to see things that they are familiar with.

6) Page count is important. You almost never want to go over 120 pages for any script. Dramas can be anywhere from 110 to 130 pages. Comedies should all be around 95 pages because anything under 100 is considered a television movie. And remember, never write less than 90 pages because if you want to write a horror for the big screen, it should be about 85 to 95 pages.

7) Don't put a number on page 1 because all screenplays must have page numbers.

8) Remember that you never get a second chance to make a first impression and producers who are impressed with your work will contact you - so always keep the contact information of all the producers you have sent your screenplay to.

9) Since only perfect specs are the ones that are purchased, make sure your write and rewrite your script several times until it is perfect - that ensures that your manuscript is ready to be rewritten once it is sold.

10) Screenwriting is a prose technique where the only things that are written are things that can be seen and heard, which is why no well-written screenplay is ever devoid of subtext.

11) You should never direct your film through your screenplay and you should never tell the reader things that can be shown.

12) And the biggest tip of all: Since you can't sell a script without an agent and you can't get an agent without selling a script, the best way to break into Hollywood is to either sell a script or get an agent.

Where Do I Put My Characters?

I’ve been reading a book called The History of Sex in American Film by Jody Pennington for mysterious reasons I can’t reveal until late-August. There have been scripts I’ve read in the past where, in some scenes, there are characters in a room and it’s obvious the writer didn’t know what or where to put those characters.

Well, consider this.

The dynamics of relationships, even sexual dynamics, can dictate where to place the characters. Or how they’re behaving. Or whether certain characters should be in the foreground while others are frozen out in the background. Or who has their back to whom. Because you can make visual statements about the relationships without resorting to dialogue and with the simple placement of the characters.

In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, George (Richard Burton) and Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) are having some marital issues. We know in a scene in a kitchen the degree of Martha’s discontent, because she tells George (in a scene filled with subtext) about the fate of Rosa Moline, a character in Beyond the Forest. “She’s a housewife… She buys things… She’s discontent.” As Jody writes in The History of Sex in American Film, “Martha’s allusion signifies her dissatisfaction with her own gender-coded role of housewife. It can also be read as a parallel indication that she is aware that her sexual desires and her plans to use sex to escape George’s world for a part of the night parallel those of Rosa Moline to escape the world of her husband…”

Then comes Nick and Honey for a night of drinks. Nick is a new colleague of George’s at a New England college. Consider these two paragraphs from Jody’s book and how placement of characters emphasized new sexual dynamics between the characters:

When the two women return, Martha has changed into something more comfortable. George greets her with a term of endearment – “my pet” – and an ironic “your Sunday chapel dress” (it is early Sunday morning). George reacts to Martha’s change of attire but tells the guests, “Martha is not changing for me.” Verifying George’s suspicions, Martha sits on the couch beside Nick and begins flirting with him. The sequence of shots begins with an extreme close-up of Nick taking a lighter and lighting Martha’s cigarette after George refused to do so…

[Mike] Nichols [the director] underlines the bond developing between Martha and Nick by shooting Martha and Nick in close-ups and medium close-ups and positioning them in the foreground. George and Honey are frozen out and left in the background. As Martha flirts with Nick, close-ups of her are intercut with close-ups of him, with Honey in the background saying that Nick had been “intercollegiate state middleweight champion.” Martha, framed in close-up, remarks, “You still look like you have a pretty good body now, too, is that right? Have you? … Is that right? Have you kept your body?” George’s interjection from the back of the room, “Martha… decency forbids…” is silenced by a loud “Shut up!” from Martha framed in a close-up. When Nick says that his body is “pretty good,” Honey, in a medium two shot with Nick, confirms what Martha thinks she sees: “Yes, he has a very firm body.” Then in quick succession there is a cut to Martha in a close-up, then back to Nick and Honey followed by a medium shot with George behind Martha, sitting at a desk reading a book. George breaks in again, and Martha retorts that George does not “cotton to body talk.” Nichols, with the deft framing of Haskell Wexler, who won an Oscar for his camera work, visualizes the way in which sexual desire can focus the minds of two people that are attracted to one another to the detriment of those around them.

Now consider The Graduate. I’m not even going to set this up, because you should already know this film. Here’s Jody again:

Eventually, Elaine returns from school, and Ben is manipulated by his parents into taking her out. When he picks her up at the Robinsons, Mrs. Robinson is sitting in the jungle room, her legs covered by a leopard-skin patterned blanket as she smokes a cigarette with The Newlywed Game playing unwatched on the television. Ben and Mrs. Robinson have a moment alone, and she tells him that she is “very upset.” He promises he will only take Elaine out this one time. Elaine and her father come in, and while the camera focuses on Mrs. Robinson’s forlorn face in a close-up, her husband advises Elaine “to keep your wits about you tonight. You never know what tricks Ben picked up back there in the East.” Ironically, we see Ben’s real teacher while her cuckolded husband mouths the sexual platitudes heard at Benjamin’s party. The scene is not completely humorous, though. By having this comment occur in this room where Mrs. Robinson first began her pursuit of Ben in earnest and by framing Mrs. Robinson’s despondent face so closely, the film shifts her from a position of superiority to one of vulnerability.

Ironically, Mrs. Robinson eventually intrudes into the intimate space Ben and Elaine share when Ben comes to pick Elaine up for a date. As Mrs. Robinson forces Ben to drive around the neighborhood, she attempts to coerce him into dropping Elaine by threatening to expose their illicit relationship. In his first burst of rebellion, Ben responds by deciding to tell Elaine himself…

On a final note, I must say, I love this paragraph about the montage:

In The Graduate, the fluctuation between the visible adherence to norms and the surreptitious deviation from them are best represented in a European-modernist inspired montage. In a sequence inspired by Francois Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, we see Benjamin’s transitions, and the symbiotic relationship, between his two lives. Benjamin is seen leaving the pool and going into his parents’ house only to enter a hotel room with Mrs. Robinson; he gets up from a bed and goes to shut the door of the dining room where his parents are eating dinner, lies down on his bed again, but is now in the hotel bedroom. In the hotel bedroom, Mrs. Robinson walks back and forth in the foreground, getting dressed, and then leaves, followed by Benjamin leaving his own bedroom, going past his mother (Elizabeth Wilson) to the pool for a swim and diving onto Mrs. Robinson in bed.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Dark Knight's Screenwriting Lesson

Hey guys,

I would’ve posted this sooner, but I got hit by a bus.

Yes, I’m fine, thank you.

The bus company is paying for all the damages to my beloved sports car. Just so you know, in the world of insurance, you can’t cause an accident by avoiding an accident. Just as an FYI.

Okay, let’s talk Dark Knight. Seen it twice. I went to a special Imax screening and saw it over the weekend in Digital Projection. Imax is the way to go. This movie’s too damn big for a regular screen.


I also managed to read
The Killing Joke. What a fabulous comic book. I’ve always had mixed feelings about comics because the crappy dialogue drives me crazy. Everything is so on-the-nose and everyone’s always stating the obvious. But The Killing Joke’s dialogue was simply electric. Not only that, and I never thought I’d say this about a comic book, it had sensational transitions between scenes.

While Joker’s origin story wasn’t used nor would any other aspect of Killing Joke’s story be found in the film, the Joker’s character, on the other hand, the point behind his terrorism, Joker’s philosophical views about humanity, were absolutely incorporated. Listen to what he tells Batman as he’s being chased in a fun house in the third act. To set this up, Joker had murdered Commissioner Gordon’s daughter, kidnapped Gordon, and tried to make him go insane. And he says all these things as Batman races through this fun house narrowly escaping booby traps while passing giant mirrored reflections of Joker’s face...

“You see, it doesn’t matter if you catch me and send me back to the asylum… Gordon’s been driven mad. I’ve proved my point. I’ve demonstrated there’s no difference between me and everyone else! All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. That’s how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day. You had a bad day once, am I right? I know I am. I can tell you had a bad day and everything changed. Why else would you dress like a flying rat? You had a bad day and it drove you as crazy as everybody else… only you won’t admit it! You have to keep pretending that life makes sense that there’s some point to all this struggling!

“God, you make me want to puke. I mean, what is it with you? What made you what you are? Girlfriend killed by the mob, maybe? Brother carved up by some mugger? Something like that, I bet. Something like that… Something like that happened to me, you know. I… I’m not exactly sure what it was. Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another. If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice! Ha ha ha!

[Which explains why he had different stories about his scar.]

“By my point is… My point is, I went crazy. When I saw what a black, awful joke the world was, I went crazy as a coot! I admit it! Why can’t you? I mean, you’re not unintelligent! You must see the reality of the situation... Do you know how many times we’ve come close to world war three over a flock of geese on a computer screen? Do you know what triggered the last world war? An argument over how many telegraph poles Germany owed its war debt creditors! Telegraph poles! HA HA HA HA HA! It’s all a joke! Everything anybody ever valued or struggled for… it’s all a monstrous demented gag! So why can’t you see the funny side? Why aren’t you laughing?”

I love it. You can almost hear Ledger’s voice behind those words.


As with anything popular, there will be a backlash.

Dave Kehr:

The Dark Knight is Dirty Harry stripped of Don Siegel’s ambivalence and ambiguity. Here again, one madman (Christian Bale’s Batman/Clint Eastwood’s Harry) is posited as the only effective way of combating another (Heath Ledger’s Joker/Andy Robinson’s Scorpio). The two figures are identified as morally equivalent (”You complete me,” says Ledger to Bale, nastily referencing Jerry Maguire), but where Siegel’s camera literally recoils in horror at the moment Harry leaps into madness (when he steps on Scorpio’s wound in the football stadium), Nolan seems to embrace, and even romanticize, his hero’s obsessive, abusive behavior. Is the Dark Knight just George Bush with a better outfit, demanding that he be allowed all of the available “tools” to combat terrorism, even if they include torture and eavesdropping? Like Bush, Batman has his own warantless wiretapping program, but Nolan is kind enough to assure us that, once his goal is accomplished, the superhero will blow it up. Is he suggesting that we can count on the Dark President to do the same?

And here’s
Keith Uhlich:

Now you see it, now you don’t. That about encapsulates the depths of feeling and artistry in The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan and company’s sordid exercise in avert-your-eyes sadism, a work at best inelegant and at worst inept. The film would have us believe it’s about dualities and polarities, the so-called Dark Knight of Gotham (Christian Bale as billionaire Bruce Wayne and vigilante alter-ego Batman) compared and contrasted with White Knight—soon-to-be literally two-faced—Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), both of them joined in messily chaotic battle with the facially-scarred villain known as The Joker, whose mid-film “You complete me” declaration to Batman is less Jerry Maguire-jest than Matrix-like pseudo-philosophy.

Yes, we’re back in the realm of “awesome!” anagrams and pothead palindromes that the Wachowski Brothers popularized nearly a decade ago, only now they’re spoken with a solemnity and verbosity borne of a beat-down Western warrior spirit, and lent gravitas by a cast only stellar in theory. But then it hardly matters if The Dark Knight’s dispiriting view of a city at war with itself doesn’t hold together, not when you have Morgan Freeman (as Wayne Enterprises liaison Lucius Fox) and Michael Caine (as stalwart manservant Alfred) spouting gloomy old man platitudes about the culture of surveillance, and everyone else monologuing ad nauseum about various and sundry long, dark teatimes of the soul…

Dawes returns in The Dark Knight (this time the paramour of Dent and in the form of Maggie Gyllenhaal), but now she’s little more than bait, a damsel-on-the-railroad-tracks plot device. I’m certain Nolan thought he was being transgressive by killing Rachel off, but her death packs zero punch because it’s so blatantly a screenwriter’s contrivance—mainly to motivate Dent’s split-personality revenge—and one executed with the same amount of “Gotcha!” shallowness as an earlier fake-out murder featuring not-yet-Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman).

Dave, the point was, know your limits. I would respond to Keith, but I think the 310 angry comments said it all. On a lighter note, DK Holms, in his
article in the Vancouver Voice, brought up an interesting point about “The Curious Case of the Dogs on the Knight.”

“How did there get to be so many canines in this movie? I can’t think of another recent film in which dogs figured in the plot so much. Though here, they don’t figure in the actual plot so much as they add more texture. The vigilantes at the beginning have dogs; The Joker has three dogs (a mythological reference?), and in the dreamy time-shifting ending Batman is pursued by police dogs through an industrial section. Bruce Wayne even has a chat with his “Q” (Morgan Freeman) about improving the bat suit to withstand dog attacks (which inspires an allusion to a possible Catwoman presence in a third film, as various talkbackers have ejaculated). These dogs are vicious but controlled, synecdoches of the ideal Gotham, creatures who are loyal, unlike cops and gangsters, and not subject to corruption except by those who train them, the corruption lying on the next level up of power.”

The dogs are a great allusion to the gangsters, certainly. In various mythologies, they were the guardians of the Underworld. The dog-headed deities in Ancient Egyptian art had the duty of “imprisoning and destroying the enemies of light” and of standing guard at the gates of holy places. Ancient Germans had a terrifying hound, Garm, which guarded the entrance to Niflheim, the realm of the dead, a land of frost and darkness. The Vikings had the myth of Garmr, “the greatest monster,” who was bound before Gnipa's Cave.

But from a storytelling perspective, I think it’s all simpler than that. You have to start from the ending and work your way back. When Harvey Dent shoots Batman, you want the audience to gasp and feel “Oh no.” Well, how do you do that, because the suit would protect him? You have to setup that moment properly with a discussion about the suit. He has to want to change his suit, which means, he’ll want it to be lighter, and thus, someone will talk about how he’ll be more susceptible to bullets. So what would give him problems to make him want to change his suit and be more flexible? Dogs. This also solves another problem, that is, how can Joker get the upper hand in a fight against Batman in the third act? He can’t use drugs, because we saw that in the last film. He can’t really take him in a fight, either. We’ve seen Batman take down multiple tough guys all throughout the film, so how can you show something different? Dogs. You setup first how much dogs give him trouble, and thus when he has difficulty because he’s being attacked by Joker’s three dogs, we buy it, and we know he’s in trouble.


Ya know, one could point to so many strengths of the film, especially the characters and their distinct voices in the dialogue, the superb tension, the bravura filmmaking, the twists, the action sequences, etc. For me, there is one great screenwriting lesson in DK that’s above all its other strengths, that really sets it apart, and that is the power of
inner conflicts. Nolan said he wanted to “push these characters and test them in new ways.” How do you do that? Inner conflicts. And not just any inner conflict but GREAT inner conflicts. I think this is what shaped the story overall, that is, the desire on the part of the filmmakers to give every character an inner conflict of some kind. By doing that, you can easily come up with a lot of material that might push a story toward 2 ½ hours. And (I know this is an unfair blanket statement, but) I get the impression from all the scripts I read that too few writers actually care about or even try to master inner conflicts.

Seeing that film made me regret not having blogged more about inner conflicts. A great inner conflict is the heart and soul of high-quality dramatic writing, isn’t it? This heightens emotions in scenes beyond the norm. It’s what keeps a story consistently compelling from scene-to-scene. It’s what adds tension in the sense that this thing could go wrong in so many ways. It’s what gives actors the opportunity to shine even if they don’t have a lot of face time on screen. Plus, to a large degree it’s what makes an ending more satisfying, because it is make or break decision time for all those conflicted characters.

So what inner conflicts did we have in DK?

Bruce: Reveal himself to Gotham or endure the terror? And that’s a conflict rooted in his origin story, too. Because we understand now his dark, inner needs to put fear into the hearts of the criminals. I think he knew the truth about his unlikely future with Rachel, too, but he couldn’t face it. And there’s also Harvey Dent. Should he fight or support him? He's a good guy, yet he'd love to knock his teeth in. Later, should he save Rachel or Harvey? Well, that wasn’t much of a conflict. He told Gordon he was going to save Rachel, but the Joker had switched the addresses. There were conflicts about Bruce’s limits, too, his physical and moral limitations as Batman. And we also sense that he was conflicted about his one rule – should he kill the Joker?

Rachel: Bruce or Harvey? Accept the proposal or not?

Harvey: Should he work with or against the Batman? Should he arrest him? He, too, faced his own inner conflicts about staying within the ethical limits of his power. Remember that scene where he tried to interrogate one of Joker’s minions? He wanted to go too far and Batman stopped him. And later in the third act, shoot or not?

Gordon: Should he work with or against Harvey Dent?

Alfred: Share or destroy Rachel’s letter?

Lucius: Help eavesdrop on the city in a way he doesn’t approve?

Lau: Cooperate with Harvey or face the Joker?

Salvatore Maroni: Work with or turn in the Joker?

People on ferries: Turn the pins or not?

It’s amazing how many characters had inner conflicts and also how many inner conflicts existed in the main protagonists, like Bruce. Even that little accountant that wanted to blackmail Wayne Enterprise $10 million a year had his own inner conflict: reveal Bruce Wayne or face the wrath of a notorious, brutal, and wealthy vigilante?

The only one who didn’t have an inner conflict was the Joker, because he had no rules, although he seemed to be of two minds about the Batman. He first hated him and wanted to destroy him and reveal to the city what a farce he really was. But then he changed his mind. He wanted to prove his point to him, practically convert him, and perhaps bridge a partnership. I loved the fact that the ending was rooted in the characters. The idea about the two ferries not only had great tension but it was rooted in the Joker and what he was trying to prove about humanity, that when the chips are down, “these civilized people will eat each other.” And in that moment when the people choose to not blow each other up, we see a brief inner conflict in the Joker.

Harvey, of course, proves the Joker correct. As a society, we can rise above this, but individually, we can fall so easily from a bad day.

Okay, so, for all the newbies out there (and those in the middle east, eastern Europe, and Africa reading my blog), let me ask the question: what is an inner conflict? It’s not simply putting a character into a position where they have to make a very difficult decision, although it is that, and we saw a lot of that in The Dark Knight. In great characters, though, it is also designing that tragic flaw and putting them in a position where they are forced to face that flaw. In non-tragic contemporary terms, this could be weaknesses of heroes, the internal obstacles of characters that keep them from achieving their
end goals. You can read more about inner conflicts here.

There was a great post by
Nienke Hinton over at the Writing Life on Inner Conflict. I still love this quote from Caro Clark:

“A character's inner conflict is not just being in two minds about something, not just being torn between obvious incompatibles (“I want to be a priest, and yet I love her”) but is about being in a new situation where old attitudes and habits war with and hinder the need for change. For instance, a man who drives himself to succeed because he doesn't want to be like his happy-go-lucky father is suddenly confronted with a situation where he isn't winning. Or an executive discovers that her ambition to be vice president of her company is being thwarted by her own self-doubt. This war inside each of your characters makes them act and react in complex ways.

“You show these internal conflicts not by means of internal dialogue (which is a cop-out and is dull), but by showing your characters responding to their own inner compulsions. She, for instance, decides to confront her own self-doubts by taking on a no-win project where the local people are opposing a development. She is determined to be hard-nosed, prove she's vice-president material. He is always confrontational, fearing that one minute of negotiation would be the first step to becoming a wimp like his father. You have a grade-A opposites-attract situation here, yet it is believable because we understand why each of them is acting the way they do, why they are foolishly stubborn, by it's important for each of them to win.”

Friday, July 18, 2008

Color and Payoffs in Wall-E

I know I’m late talking about this, but I like to wait a couple of weeks before seeing a Pixar film (so all the little kiddies won’t bother me).

Okay, three points I’d like to make about Wall-E.


As far as I’m concerned, the first 20 minutes of that film are worth the price of admission. It’s magnificent the way they created this story with very little dialogue. These guys at Pixar truly understand the language of film, too, the way you tell stories through images. Of course, the finished result always looks so deceptively easy. You better believe, though, that every shot and every moment was carefully conceived, discussed at length, and at times redone.

But consider all the information that’s told to us without words. What happened to Earth and why. The way they impressed upon you how Wall-E is truly alone on Earth. The point of Wall-E’s job. How people got off Earth. How they establish the cruise ship. Wall-E’s fascination with Earth. Wall-E’s inner needs, that is, his desire for companionship and love, human-style. This was especially true when he repeatedly reached out for Eve’s hand, which brings me to…


There is a simple motif throughout the film in which Wall-E continually tries to hold hands with Eve (or as he calls her – “Eeeevaa!”) This motif illustrates the point of great setups and payoffs, which is crucial in screenwriting. The setup: he wants to hold hands. The payoff: they hold hands. Simple, right? The holding of hands is a great choice for this story, because it visually and externally illustrates Wall-E’s inner needs about Eve. He wants to connect with her, like humans. Plus, we know that when the moment comes that they actually hold hands, they will have connected and Wall-E will be happy.

There are billions of setups and payoffs to choose from for stories. So, on the one hand, what you choose as a setup and payoff is important because it has to be essential to your story. On the other hand, what you choose as a setup and payoff isn’t enough. It’s how well you handle the setups and payoffs in your script that determines how effectively you’re communicating with your audience. One of the big unspoken aspects of screenwriting is that half the battle is mastering the fine art of setups and payoffs and making them work, which takes time, practice, and lots of feedback.

Sometimes I think amateur writers I’ve reviewed in the past tried to have too much in the way of setups and payoffs in order to impress people. It’s as if it’s beneath them to work in SIMPLE setups and payoffs. But, hey, that’s screenwriting. If you have too many setups and payoffs, they’ll just fly by the screen and won’t be effective. You need to stick with fewer setups and payoffs in order for them to be fully felt, which means you have to choose wisely and make them work. Less is more. What’s more impressive in this medium of films is how well you handle a few, simple setups and payoffs like Wall-E.

How did they do it?

* Wall-E repeatedly reaches out to hold Eve’s hand, which fails.
* Eve rejects him. She doesn’t understand what he wants.
* At a crucial moment, Eve is made to understand. She cares.
* She tries to hold hands with him, but it’s too late.
* Then, as they hold hands, Wall-E comes back to his old self.
* They finally connect, and it’s happily every after.

On paper (or mysterious blog article) that sounds too simple for a great film. But it’s not so much WHAT happens but HOW that happens and WHEN that happens that creates an emotional impact. He had to reach out for her hand at just the right moments to be effective. It’s like what Ebert says: “It’s not what it’s about but how it’s about it.”


I also wanted to talk about the colors of this film, but Jim Emerson
beat me to it. I’m glad, too, because Jim pointed out a great interview with Wall-E director, Andrew Stanton, on Fresh Air in which he talked about a lot of the brainstorming that went into Wall-E:

"I geeked out at the idea of being able to do a much more monochromatic palette. That's not usually associated with animated pictures because there's this stigma of it being a babysitter or family fare and it has to have every color of the rainbow in it, and all that stuff -- which really makes me want to go in the other direction when I hear that. And I loved that just the natural setting [Earth as a big dump] required a monochromatic bent to it, at least in the beginning of the film. So it's dealing with a lots of yellows and tans and browns. It made anything primary, like even the chipped-away red circle of Wall-E's "E," or the one time you finally see something real like a plant, really stand out. It's almost like having the restraint of using a close-up and not using it until the very right moment. It suddenly has a huge impact when it's used.

Jim wrote, “How cool is that? An animator who understands the psychologically effective uses of color... and close-ups!” I would just add that the contrast of the monochromatic exterior of the Earth made the rich interior colors of Wall-E’s home feel that much more special, just as special as it must’ve felt for that little robot.


Your Movie Sucks!

As the world watches and debates this weekend how great is The Dark Knight, let us consider those films that, as the kids say, “suck ass.” I mentioned in my Fatal Flaws article that I had read Roger Ebert’s latest book, Your Movie Sucks, which is a collection of reviews from the last decade or so of films that had fewer than one and a half stars.

It’s so easy to point to the strengths of a great film, which can be many, but I’ve always felt that you learn more from a film (or script) that fails. I always take those lessons of failure with me when I sit down to write, more so than the successes of great films.

Oh, the things that would drive Ebert crazy! I took notes. Whole preposterousness. Ridiculous stupidity in execution. A workable concept completely miscast. The lack of verisimilitude. Crushed by the weight of bankrupt clichés. Cardboard characters. Characters betrayed by the needs of the plot. Failing at its own objectives (i.e., a comedy that’s horribly unfunny). An indecipherable chaotic mess of a plot. Unfinished and unfleshed-out story, and thus, inconsistencies, improbabilities, unanswered questions, and unfinished characters. Suspension of belief and intelligence. Total implausibility.

He would sometimes cite Gene Siskel’s method of judging value: Is the movie better than a documentary of the same actors having lunch?

And so, I’d like to share highlights from the book, little golden nuggets for aspiring screenwriters, that I thought would be of interest. Screenwriting is tough. What’s at stake with every script is not only your career and your future but also the possibility of public humiliation. If you, as an aspiring screenwriter, are not insecure, paranoid, and worrisome about almost every story decision you make, I can’t help but wonder if there’s something wrong with you.


Hope you enjoy it.



Be Cool

John Travolta became a movie star by playing a Brooklyn kid who wins a dance contest in "Saturday Night Fever" (1977). He revived his career by dancing with Uma Thurman in "Pulp Fiction" (1994). In "Be Cool," Uma Thurman asks if he dances. "I'm from Brooklyn," he says, and then they dance. So we get it: "Brooklyn" connects with "Fever," Thurman connects with "Pulp." That's the easy part. The hard part is, what do we do with it?

Be Cool" is a movie that knows it is a movie. It knows it is a sequel and contains disparaging references to sequels. All very cute at the screenplay stage, where everybody can sit around at story conferences and assume that a scene will work because the scene it refers to worked. But that's the case only when the new scene is also good as itself, apart from what it refers to.

Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" knew that Travolta won the disco contest in "Saturday Night Fever." But Tarantino's scene didn't depend on that; it built from it. Travolta was graceful beyond compare in "Fever," but in "Pulp Fiction" he's dancing with a gangster's wife on orders from the gangster, and part of the point of the scene is that both Travolta and Thurman look like they're dancing not out of joy, but out of duty. So we remember "Fever" and then we forget it, because the new scene is working on its own.

Now look at the dance scene in "
Be Cool." Travolta and Thurman dance in a perfectly competent way that is neither good nor bad. Emotionally they are neither happy or sad. The scene is not necessary to the story. The filmmakers have put them on the dance floor without a safety net. And so we watch them dancing and we think, yeah, "Saturday Night Fever" and "Pulp Fiction," and when that thought has been exhausted, they're still dancing.


A Dirty Shame

There is in show biz something known as "a bad laugh." That's the laugh you don't want to get, because it indicates not amusement but incredulity, nervousness or disapproval.
John Waters' "A Dirty Shame" is the only comedy I can think of that gets more bad laughs than good ones…

To truly deal with a strange sexual fetish can indeed be shocking, as "
Kissed" (1996) demonstrated with its quiet, observant portrait of Molly Parker playing a necrophiliac. It can also be funny, as James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal demonstrated in the film "Secretary" (2002). Tracey Ullman is a great comic actress, but for her to make this movie funny would have required not just a performance but a rewrite and a miracle.

Fetishes are neither funny nor shocking simply because they exist. You have to do more with them than have characters gleefully celebrate them on the screen. Waters' weakness is to expect laughs because the idea of a moment is funny. But the idea of a moment exists only for the pitch; the movie has to develop it into a reality, a process, a payoff. An illustration of this is his persisting conviction that it is funny by definition to have Patty Hearst in his movies. It is only funny when he gives Ms. Hearst, who is a good sport, something amusing to do. She won't find it in this movie.


Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

There is not a character in the movie with a shred of plausibility, not an event that is believable, not a confrontation that is not staged, not a moment that is not false. For their sins, the sisterhood should be forced to spend the rest of their lives locked in a Winnebago camper. The only character in the movie who is bearable is the heroine as a young woman, played by
Ashley Judd, who suggests that there was a time before the story's main events when this creature was palatable…

The movie marks the directorial debut of
Callie Khouri, author of "Thelma and Louise." She seems uncertain what the film is about, where it is going, what it hopes to prove apart from the most crashingly obvious cliches of light women's fiction. So inattentive is the screenplay that it goes to the trouble of providing Vivi with three other children in addition to Sidda, only to never mention them again. A fellow critic, Victoria Alexander, speculates that the secret in Vivi's past may have been that she drowned the kids, but that's too much to hope for.


Double Take

"Double Take" is the kind of double-triple-reverse movie that can drive you nuts because you can't count on anything in the plot. Characters, motivations and true identities change from scene to scene at the whim of the screenplay. Finally you tire of trying to follow the story. You can only get the rug jerked out from under you so many times before you realize the movie has the attention span of a gnat and thinks you do, too.



It is possible to imagine this story being told in a good film, but that would involve a different screenplay. Nicholas Kazan's script makes the evil husband (
Billy Campbell) such an unlikely caricature of hard-breathing sadistic testosterone that he cannot possibly be a real human being. Of course there are men who beat their wives and torture them with cruel mind games, but do they satirize themselves as the heavy in a B movie? The husband's swings of personality and mood are so sudden, and his motivation makes so little sense, that he has no existence beyond the stereotyped Evil Rich White Male. The fact that he preys on a poor Latino waitress is just one more cynical cliche…

In the movie's headlong rush of events, Slim and Mitch are soon married, buy a big house, have a cute child, and then Slim discovers Mitch is having affairs, and he growls at her: "I am, and always will be, a person who gets what he wants." He starts slapping her around. Although their child is now 3 or 4, this is a Mitch she has not seen before in their marriage. Where did this Mitch come from? How did he restrain himself from pounding and strangling her during all of the early years? Why did she think herself happy until now? The answer, of course, is that Mitch turns on a dime when the screenplay requires him to. He even starts talking differently.


The Girl Next Door

The nature of their film is yet another bait-and-switch, in a movie that wants to seem dirtier than it is. Like a strip show at a carnival, it lures you in with promises of sleaze, and after you have committed yourself for the filthy-minded punter you are, it professes innocence… "Risky Business" (1983) you will recall, starred
Tom Cruise as a young man left home alone by his parents, who wrecks the family Porsche and ends up enlisting a call girl (Rebecca De Mornay) to run a brothel out of his house to raise money to replace the car. The movie is the obvious model for "The Girl Next Door," but it completely misses the tone and wit of the earlier film, which proved you can get away with that plot, but you have to know what you're doing and how to do it, two pieces of knowledge conspicuously absent here.


Head Over Heels

"Head Over Heels" opens with 15 funny minutes and then goes dead in the water. It's like they sent home the first team of screenwriters and brought in Beavis and Butt-Head. The movie starts out with sharp wit and edgy zingers, switches them off and turns to bathroom humor. And not funny bathroom humor, but painfully phony gas-passing noises, followed by a plumbing emergency that buries three supermodels in a putrid delivery from where the sun don't shine. It's as if the production was a fight to the death between bright people with a sense of humor, and cretins who think the audience is as stupid as they are.

Monica Potter and Freddie Prinze Jr. star in another one of those stories where it's love at first sight and then she gets the notion that he's clubbed someone to death. The two characters were doing perfectly well being funny as themselves , and then the movie muzzles them and brings in this pea-brained autopilot plot involving mistaken identities, dead bodies and the Russian mob.

Why? I wanted to ask the filmmakers. Why? You have a terrific cast and the wit to start out well. Why surrender and sell out? Isn't it a better bet, and even better for your careers, to make a whole movie that's smart and funny, instead of showing off for 15 minutes and then descending into cynicism and stupidity? Why not make a movie you can show to the friends you admire, instead of to a test audience scraped from the bottom of the IQ barrel?


The Hills Have Eyes

It always begins with the Wrong Gas Station. In real life, as I pointed out in my review of a previous Wrong Gas Station movie, most gas stations are clean, well-lighted places, where you can buy not only gasoline but groceries, clothes, electronic devices,
Jeff Foxworthy CDs and a full line of Harley merchandise. In horror movies, however, the only gas station in the world is located on a desolate road in a godforsaken backwater. It is staffed by a degenerate who shuffles out in his coveralls and runs through a disgusting repertory of scratchings, spittings, chewings, twitchings and leerings, while thoughtfully shifting mucus up and down his throat.

The clean-cut heroes of the movie, be they a family on vacation, newlyweds, college students or backpackers, all have one thing in common. They believe everything this man tells them, especially when he suggests they turn left on the unpaved road for a shortcut. Does it ever occur to them that in this desolate wasteland with only one main road, it must be the road to stay on if they ever again want to use their cell phones?

No. It does not. They take the fatal detour, and find themselves the prey of demented mutant incestuous cannibalistic gnashing slobberers, who carry pickaxes the way other people carry umbrellas.


How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days

I am just about ready to write off movies in which people make bets about whether they will, or will not, fall in love. The premise is fundamentally unsound, since it subverts every love scene with a lying subtext. Characters are nice when they want to be mean, or mean when they want to be nice. The easiest thing at the movies is to sympathize with two people who are falling in love. The hardest thing is to sympathize with two people who are denying their feelings, misleading each other, and causing pain to a trusting heart. This is comedy only by dictionary definition. In life, it is unpleasant, and makes the audience sad.

Unless, of course, the characters are thoroughgoing rotters in the first place, as in "
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" (1988), in which Steve Martin and Michael Caine make a $50,000 bet on who will be the first to con the rich American played by Glenne Headley. They deserve their comeuppance, and we enjoy it. "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days" is not, alas, pitched at that modest level of sophistication, and provides us with two young people who are like pawns in a sex game for the developmentally shortchanged.


Invisible Circus

Adam Brooks' "Invisible Circus" finds the solution to searing personal questions through a tricky flashback structure. There are two stories here, involving an older sister's disappearance and a younger sister's quest, and either one would be better told as a straightforward narrative. When flashbacks tease us with bits of information, it has to be done well, or we feel toyed with. Here the mystery is solved by stomping in thick-soled narrative boots through the squishy marsh of contrivance.


Jeepers Creepers 2

To call the characters on the bus paper-thin would be a kindness. Too bad, then, that we spend so much time on the bus, listening to their wretched dialogue and watching as they race from one window to another to see what foul deeds are occurring outside. Speaking of outside, Scott is the obligatory obstreperous jerk who is forever speculating that the creature has gone and won't return; he keeps suggesting they leave the bus to trek to a hypothetical nearby farmhouse. He's a direct throwback to the standard character in Dead Teenager Movies who's always saying, "Hmmm ... all of the other campers have been found dead and eviscerated, Mimsy, so this would be an ideal time to walk out into the dark woods and go skinny-dipping in the pond where dozens of kids have died in the previous movies in this series."

Despite Scott's homophobia, the movie has a healthy interest in the male physique, and it's amazing how many of the guys walk around bare-chested. The critic John Fallon writes "at a certain point, I thought I was watching soft gay erotica," and observes that when four of the guys go outside to pee, they line up shoulder to shoulder, which strikes him as unlikely since they are in a very large field. True in another movie, but in a film where the Creeper is likely to swoop down at any second and carry someone away, I would pick the tallest guy and stand next to him, on the theory that lightning will strike the tree and not you.


Just A Kiss

Consider, for example, a sequence in which one character on an airplane uses his cell phone to tell another that he loves her. His phone emits lethal transmissions which cause the plane to crash. Everyone in first class lives; everyone in tourist class dies. I smile as I write the words. This would be a good scene in "Airplane!" What is it doing here, in a movie where we are possibly expected to care about the characters' romances and infidelities? To admit farce into a drama is to admit that the drama is farce.

But is it a drama? I haven't a clue. The movie seems to reinvent itself from moment to moment, darting between styles like a squirrel with too many nuts. There is one performance that works, sort of, and it is by
Marisa Tomei, as a bartender whose psychic gifts allow her to find meaning in the rings left by cold beers. She is a crazy homicidal maniac, but, hey, at least that means that nothing she does is out of character.


Just Married

Sarah and Tom have nothing to talk about. They are a pathetic stupid couple and deserve each other. What they do not deserve, perhaps, is a screenplay that alternates between motivation and slapstick. Either it's character-driven or it isn't. If it is, then you can't take your plausible characters and dump them into Laurel and Hardy. Their rental car, for example, gets a cheap laugh, but makes them seem silly in the wrong way. And earlier in the film, Tom is responsible for the death of Sarah's dog in a scenario recycled directly from an urban legend everyone has heard.

Would it have been that much more difficult to make a movie in which Tom and Sarah were plausible, reasonably articulate newlyweds with the humor on their honeymoon growing out of situations we could believe? Apparently.


The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Now listen carefully. M informs them that the leaders of Europe are going to meet in Venice and that the mysterious villains will blow up the city to start a world war. The League must stop them. When is the meeting? In three days, M says. Impossible to get there in time, Quartermain says, apparently in ignorance of railroads. Nemo volunteers his submarine, the Nautilus, which is about 10 stories high and as long as an aircraft carrier, and which we soon see cruising the canals of Venice.

It's hard enough for gondolas to negotiate the inner canals of Venice, let alone a sub the size of an ocean liner, but no problem; "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" either knows absolutely nothing about Venice, or (more likely) trusts that its audience does not. At one point, the towering Nautilus sails under the tiny Bridge of Sighs and only scrapes it a little. In no time at all there is an action scene involving Nemo's newfangled automobile, which races meaninglessly down streets that do not exist, because there are no streets in Venice and you can't go much more than a block before running into a bridge or a canal. Maybe the filmmakers did their research at the Venetian Hotel in Venice, where Connery arrived by gondola for the movie's premiere.


The Legend of Zorro

Now come Banderas and Zeta-Jones again, with the same director,
Martin Campbell, and of all of the possible ideas about how to handle the Elena character, this movie has assembled the worst ones. The sublime adventuress has turned into the kind of wife who wants her husband to quit Zorroing because "you do not know your own son," and besides Zorro comes home late, she never knows where he is, etc. We are inflicted with such dialogue as:

"People still need Zorro!"

"No -- you still need Zorro!"

"You're overreacting!"

Saints preserve us from Mr. and Mrs. Zorro as the Bickersons. And what are we to make of their son, Joaquin (a good little actor named Adrian Alonso), who dresses like Little Lord Fauntleroy but has developed, apparently by osmosis, all of the skills of his father, such as shadowing bad guys, eavesdropping on plots, improvising in emergencies and exposing a dastardly scheme to overthrow the government.

He's a bright kid, but not bright enough to recognize that Zorro is his own father. To be sure, Zorro wears a mask, but let me pose a hypothetical exercise for my readers. Imagine your own father. That's it. Now place him in a typical setting: Pushing back from the dinner table, cutting off some jerk in an intersection, or scratching his dandruff. Now imagine your dad wearing black leather pants, a black linen shirt, a black cloak, a flat black hat, and a black mask that covers his eyes. Got that? Now imagine him pushing back from the table. Still your dad, right? You can almost hear your mom: "Now don't you go getting any ideas about that whip."


The Man

At Telluride over the weekend, I was talking to
James Mangold, the director of "Walk the Line" and other ambitious pictures, and he said an interesting thing: Hollywood executives are reluctant to green-light a project that depends on the filmmakers being able to pull it off. They want familiar formulas in safe packages. An original movie idea involves faith that the script will work, the director knows what he's doing and the actors are right for the story. Too risky. Better to make a movie where when you hear the pitch you can already envision the TV commercial, because the movie will essentially be the long form of the 30-second spot. Go online, look at the trailer for "The Man," and you will know everything you could possibly need to know about this movie except how it would feel if the trailer was 80 minutes long.


Masked and Anonymous

"Masked and Anonymous" is a vanity production beyond all reason. I am not sure, however, than the vanity is Dylan's. I don't have any idea what to think about him. He has so long since disappeared into his persona that there is little received sense of the person there. The vanity belongs perhaps to those who flattered their own by working with him, by assuming (in the face of all they had learned during hard days of honest labor on a multitude of pictures) that his genius would somehow redeem a screenplay that could never have seemed other than what it was, incoherent raving juvenile meanderings. If I had been asked to serve as consultant on this picture, my advice would have amounted to three words: more Tinashe Kachingwe.


The Master of Disguise

The movie is a desperate miscalculation. It gives poor
Dana Carvey nothing to do that is really funny, and then expects us to laugh because he acts so goofy all the time. But acting funny is not funny. Acting in a situation that's funny--that's funny.



Downtown itself looks like the amusement park from (or in) hell, and there's a lot of "
Beetlejuice" in the inspiration for the strange creatures, one-eyed and otherwise, who live there. But strangeness is not enough. There must also be humor, and characters who exist for some reason other than to look bizarre. That rule would include Whoopi Goldberg's Death, who is sadly underwritten, and played by Goldberg as if we're supposed to keep repeating: "Wow! Look! Death is being played by Whoopi Goldberg!" It is a truth too often forgotten that casting a famous actor in a weird cameo is the setup of the joke, not the punch line.



Eventually we realize that Fonda's character consists entirely of a scene waiting to happen: The scene where her heart melts, she realizes Charlie is terrific, and she accepts her. Everything else Viola does is an exercise in postponing that moment. The longer we wait, the more we wonder why (a) Charlie doesn't belt her, and (b) Charlie doesn't jump Dr. Kevin -- actually, I meant to write "dump," but either will do. By the time the happy ending arrives, it's too late, because by then we don't want Charlie to marry Dr. Kevin. We want her to go back to walking the dogs. She was happier, we were happier, the dogs were happier.


Mr. Deeds

Frank Capra played this story straight. But the 2002 film doesn't really believe in it, and breaks the mood with absurdly inappropriate "comedy" scenes. Consider a scene where Deeds meets his new butler Emilio (John Turturro). Emilio has a foot fetish. Deeds doubts Emilio will like his right foot, which is pitch black after a childhood bout of frostbite. The foot has no feeling, Deeds says, inviting Emilio to pound it with a fireplace poker. When Deeds doesn't flinch, Turturro actually punctures the foot with the point of the poker, at which point I listened attentively for sounds of laughter in the theater, and heard none.

There's no chemistry between Deeds and Babe, but then how could there be, considering that their characters have no existence, except as the puppets in scenes of plot manipulation. After Deeds grows disillusioned with her, there is a reconciliation inspired after she falls through the ice on a pond and he breaks through to save her using the Black Foot. In story conferences, do they discuss scenes like this and nod approvingly? Tell me, for I want to know.

[Indeed, they do, Roger.]


The One

This titanic closing fight, by the way, may use cutting-edge effects, but has been written with slavish respect for ancient cliches. It begins with the venerable It's Only a Cat Scene, in which a cat startles a character (but not the audience) by leaping at the lens. Then the characters retire to a Steam and Flame Factory, one of those Identikit movie sets filled with machines that produce copious quantities of steam, flames and sparks. Where do they have their fight? On a catwalk, of course. Does anyone end up clinging by his fingertips? Don't make me laugh. The movie offers brainless high-tech action without interesting dialogue, characters, motivation or texture. In other words, it's sure to be popular. Seeing a movie like this makes me feel bad that I applied such high standards to last week's "
Donnie Darko," which also deals with logical paradoxes, and by comparison, is a masterpiece.


The Promise

Another difficulty is that the story is never organized clearly enough to generate much concern in our minds. The characters are not people but collections of attributes, and isn't it generally true that the more sensational an action scene, the less we care about the people in it? It's as if the scene signals us that it's about itself, and the characters are spectators just as we are.

I spent a fair amount of time puzzling over my notes and rummaging on the Web for hints about the details of the plot, and in the process discovered a new Movie Law. You are familiar with the Law of Symbolism: If you have to ask what something symbolized, it didn't. Now here is the Law of Plots: If you can't describe it with clarity, there wasn't one. I know someone will throw up "
Syriana" as an objection, but there is a difference between a plot that is about confusion, and a plot that is merely confused.


Reign of Fire

I'm wondering, why, if civilization has been destroyed, do they have electricity and fuel? Not supposed to ask such questions. They're like, how come everybody has cigarettes in "
Waterworld"? Van Zan figures out that the dragon's fire comes from the way they secrete the ingredients for "natural napalm" in their mouths. His plan: Get real close and fire an explosive arrow into their open mouth at the crucial moment, causing the napalm to blow up the dragon.

He has another bright idea. (Spoiler warning.) All of the dragons they see are females. Many of them carry eggs. Why no males? Because, Van Zan hypothesizes, the dragons are like fish, and it only takes a single male to fertilize umpteen eggs. "We kill the male, we kill the species," he says.

Yeah, but ... there are dragons everywhere. Do they only have one male, total, singular? How about those eggs? Any of them male? And also, after the male is dead, presumably all of the females are still alive, and they must be mad as hell now that they're not getting any action. How come they stop attacking? I know I have probably been inattentive, and that some of these points are solved with elegant precision in the screenplay. But please do not write to explain, unless you can answer me this: Why are the last words in the movie, "Thank God for evolution"? Could it be a ray of hope that the offspring of this movie may someday crawl up onto the land and develop a two-celled brain?


Reindeer Games

“Reindeer Games” is the first All Talking Killer picture. After the setup, it consists mostly of characters explaining their actions to one another. I wish I'd had a stopwatch, to clock how many minutes are spent while one character holds a gun to another character's head and gabs.
Charlize Theron and Gary Sinise between them explain so much they reminded me of Gertrude Stein's line about Ezra Pound: "He was a village explainer, excellent if you were a village, but if you were not, not." Just a nudge, and the movie would fall over into self-parody, and maybe work better. But I fear it is essentially serious, or as serious as such goofiness can be.


Resident Evil

Alice/J.P./M.T. or Rain (I forget which): "It's coagulating!" Matt or Spence (I forget which): "That's not possible!" "Why not?!?" "Because blood doesn't do that until you're dead!" How does the blood on the floor know if you're dead? The answer to this question is so obvious I am surprised you would ask. Because it is zombie blood.

The characters have no small talk. Their dialogue consists of commands, explanations, exclamations and ejaculations. Yes, an ejaculation can be dialogue. If you live long enough you may find that happening frequently.


Resident Evil: Apocalypse

We pause here for logistical discussions. In a scene where several characters are fighting zombies inside a church, the renegade scientist comes to the rescue by crashing her motorcycle through a stained-glass window and landing in the middle of the fight. This inspires the question: How did she know what was on the other side of the window? Was she crashing through the stained glass on spec?

My next logistical puzzlement involves killing the zombies. They die when you shoot them. Fine, except Umbrella Corp. has developed some mutants who wear bulletproof armor. Zillions of rounds of ammo bounce off this armor, but here's a funny thing: The mutants do not wear helmets, so we can see their ugly faces. So why not just shoot them in the head? Am I missing something here?


Romeo Must Die

It is a failing of mine that I persist in bringing logic to movies where it is not wanted. During ``Romeo Must Die,'' I began to speculate about the methods used to buy up the waterfront. All of the property owners (of clubs, little shops, crab houses, etc.) are asked to sell, and when they refuse, they are variously murdered, torched, blown up or have their faces stuck into vats of live crabs. Don't you think the press and the local authorities would notice this? Don't you imagine it would take the bloom off a stadium to know that dozens of victims were murdered to clear the land?

Never mind. The audience isn't in the theater for a film about property values, but to watch
Jet Li and other martial arts warriors in action. “Romeo Must Die” has a lot of fight scenes, but their key moments are so obviously filmed via special effects that they miss the point. When Jackie Chan does a stunt, it may look inelegant, but we know he's really doing it. Here Jet Li leaps six feet in the air and rotates clockwise while kicking three guys. It can't be done, we know it can't be done, we know he's not doing it, and so what's the point? In “The Matrix,” there's a reason the guy can fly.


Running Free

I seem to be developing a rule about talking animals: They can talk if they're cartoons or Muppets, but not if they're real. This movie might have been more persuasive if the boy had told the story of the horse, instead of the horse telling the story of the boy. It's perfectly possible to make a good movie about an animal that does not speak, as
Jean-Jacques Annaud, the producer of this film, proved with his 1989 film "The Bear." I also recall "The Black Stallion" (1979) and "White Fang" (1991). Since both of those splendid movies were co-written by Jeanne Rosenberg, the author of "Running Free," I can only guess that the talking horse was pressed upon her by executives who have no faith in the intelligence of today's audiences.


Rush Hour 2

There is a belief among some black comics that audiences find it funny when they launch extended insults against white people (see also
Chris Rock's embarrassing outburst in the forthcoming "Jay and Silent Bob"). My feeling is that audiences of any race find such scenes awkward and unwelcome; I've never heard laughter during them, but have sensed an uncomfortable alertness in the theater. Accusing complete strangers of being racist is aggressive, hostile, and not funny, something Tucker demonstrates to a painful degree in this movie--where the filmmakers apparently lacked the nerve to request him to dial down.


Say It Isn’t So

A comedy character can't be successfully embarrassed for more than a few seconds at a time. Even then, it's best if they don't know what they've done wrong--if the joke's on them, and they don't get it. The "hair gel" scenes in "
There's Something About Mary" are a classic example of embarrassment done right. "Say It Isn't So," on the other hand, keeps a character embarrassed in scene after scene, until he becomes an embarrassment. The movie doesn't understand that embarrassment comes in a sudden painful flush of realization; drag it out, and it's not embarrassment anymore, but public humiliation, which is a different condition, and not funny.


Silent Hill

Now here's a funny thing. Although I did not understand the story, I would have appreciated a great deal less explanation. All through the movie, characters are pausing in order to offer arcane back-stories and historical perspectives and metaphysical insights and occult orientations. They talk and talk and somehow their words do not light up any synapses in my brain, if my brain has synapses and they're supposed to light up, and if it doesn't and they're not, then they still don't make any sense.



It happens that I've just seen a complicated noir,
Roman Polanski's "Chinatown," which also involves sexual misconduct in the past and blackmail in the present. One reason it works so well is that the characters seem to drive the plot: Things turn out the way they do because the characters are who they are. The plot of "Simpatico" is like a clockwork mechanism that would tick whether or not anyone cared what time it was.



There is a kind of one-upmanship now at work in Hollywood, inspired by the success of several gross-out comedies, to elevate smut into an art form. This is not an entirely futile endeavor; it can be done, and when it is done well, it can be funny. But most of the wannabes fail to understand one thing: It is funny when a character is offensive despite himself, but not funny when he is deliberately offensive. The classic "hair gel" scene involving
Ben Stiller and Cameron Diaz in "There's Something About Mary" was funny because neither one had the slightest idea what was going on.



The men in "
Tomcats" are surrounded by beautiful women, but they hate and fear them. That alone is enough to sink the film, since no reasonable person in the audience can understand why these guys are so weirdly twisted. But then the film humiliates the women, and we wince when it wants us to laugh. Here is a comedy positioned outside the normal range of human response.



The characters in "
Waiting..." seem like types, not people. What they do and say isn't funny because someone real doesn't seem to be doing or saying it. Everything that the John Beulshi character did in "Animal House" proceeded directly from the core of his innermost being: he crushed beer cans against his forehead, because he was a person who needed to, and often did, and enjoyed it and found that it worked for him. You never got the idea he did it because it might be funny in a movie.


Wolf Creek

“I like horror films. Horror movies, even extreme ones, function primarily by scaring us or intriguing us. Consider "Three ... Extremes" recently. "
Wolf Creek" is more like the guy at the carnival sideshow who bites off chicken heads. No fun for us, no fun for the guy, no fun for the chicken. In the case of this film, it's fun for the guy.”