Storytelling insights from 3 minutes of glorious film with subtitles

tinseltown tuesday meme morpheous

Yes, I watch movies with subtitles, even if they’re in black-and-white, with people smoking French cigarettes while speaking French and watching things happen to other people in some scrappy, destitute part of Paris or, for variety, a tiny farming village in Normandy. 

We are talking about a different sort of foreign film with subtitles.

  • Bonus No. 1: This film is 3 minutes long instead of three hours.
  • Bonus No. 2: There is hardly any talking, or any need to read the subtitles at all.
  • Bonus No. 3: Most importantly, this little film can teach us all great big lessons about storytelling and structure.

Also, unless you have no soul, it will make drops of water drip from your eyes and scurry down your cheeks.

Here. Watch the clip in high definition. Or low def, it that’s your thing. Whatever floats your boat.

Okay. All done?

Let’s take it apart and see what makes it tick.

Strong bones

This little film has strong bones. The structure is a roller coaster: things are bad (son is running away), things get even worse (son nearly dies, is paralyzed), then in the climax, things get resolved and the world is forever changed, at least for this family.

The father is not sympathetic at first, right? My first thought was bad casting. No. Good storytelling. The main narrative question is, “Will they get together?” This is a love story, which doesn’t have to be a rom-com with a high-powered professional woman who eventually gets together with a chubby, unemployed virgin who owns the Largest Comic Book Collection Known to Man, because for some reason, that’s what half the rom-coms are these days.

The other half of rom-coms star Matthew McConaughey.

Back to this little film: if they’re getting together in the end, they must be split apart in the beginning.

Another narrative question is, “How do these people suffer, change and grow?”

The father moves from stern, humorless taskmaster to loving and dedicated. He’s the hero of this little film, because it’s his actions that matter most. The normal thing would be for him to let the doctors do their work, right? But it’s his turn to rebel. He carries his son out of the hospital, out of the wheelchair and back into the world. Rehab isn’t going to be nurses and machines and doctors. It’s going to be father and son, learning to walk again.

And all that suffering and sacrifice pays off. The son also transforms. In the beginning, he’s rebellious and aloof. In the end, he’s loyal and connected to his family.

The mother is a flat character. She suffers, but she doesn’t change. That’s OK. Having two characters go through all this in three minutes is plenty.

Real stories beat Michael Bay explosions

This tiny film, which is a flipping COMMERCIAL, moved me far more than bazillion-dollar CGI blockbusters involving dinosaurs, vampires or robots that transform themselves into Chevies.

You can take those $294 million budgets full of special effects and a scripts credited to five different writers. (Pro-tip: the more screenwriters you throw in the kitchen, the crazier the thing that comes out of the oven.)

Give me a story with strong bones and a tiny budget.

Give me people I actually care about, because I don’t give a hoot about Shia LaBeuf and Megan Fox fighting robots or whether the awkward teenage girl gets together with the Sparkly British Vampire vs some kid who used to be a Power Ranger.

Give me a story. A story like this.

Will the new DARK PHOENIX fill us with wonder or be a Mountain of Meh?

dark phoenix

The X-Men movies are a lot like Star Trek films, and not just due to Sir Patrick Stewart–both series tend to have great films followed by good followed by epic fails. Then the cycle repeats. Will it be so with DARK PHOENIX?

This isn’t a function of genre, since Marvel can take silly superheroes like Ant Man or Chris Pratt plus a talking tree and his pet raccoon and turn both concepts into billions of dollars. They can take anything and make it work.

Meanwhile, DC can have the best superhero of all time, Batman, and still find ways to screw it up.

It’s the same thing with Star Trek and Star Wars, both franchises so enduring that I bet you my house they’ll be making and remaking Spock tales and lightsaber battles when our son has grandsons and those grandsons have grandsons.

The first X-Men movie was brilliant, just like the first rebooted Trek movie (remember: Chris Pine as Kirk, that one). The second one was good, just like the second Star Trek with Sherlock/Dr. Strange playing Khan.

Then the third versions of both movies stank.

Every movie ticket is a gamble

We got redemption in the mutant world with young Magneto and Xavier with Hair, then a stinker with APOCALYPSE but another good one with DAYS OF FUTURE PAST.

The exception to this rule with the mutant movies is Wolverine, with the first movie a horrible mess, the second one not much better and only LOGAN kicking butt the way Wolverine should.

So it’s a gamble, every time, when we’re talking X-Men, and they’re looking to impress the new bosses with Marvel finally bringing them into the fold from Sony or Fox or whoever. OK, it was Fox.

Take a look the trailer, then we’ll chat about whether this promises to be terribly good or a hot mess.

Looking for clues in the trailer

I won’t dissect every second of this trailer to figure out all the things you can find people obsessing about elsewhere, like whether this is set in 1983 or 1984 based on the license plate of a car glimpsed in frame 324 or whatever.

The big picture is what matters. Will this movie fill us with wonder or be a Mountain of Meh?

Arguing on behalf of Mountain of Meh: the fact the biggest stinker so far, the third original X-Men movie, featured this same storyline: Jean Grey losing it to become Dark Phoenix, killing Professor Xavier in a shocking twist they shockingly retconned into oblivion the next movie. Then she laid waste to half of San Fran, looking completely unstoppable until Hugh Jackman popped his claws.

Are we looking at repeat? I don’t think so.

The case for Filling Us with Wonder is pretty good.

Many bad comic book movies have bad, frenetic trailers. They’re in a hurry to show how fast and fun the movie will be. Explosions! Fights! All kinds of office buildings and cars in a CGI Gotham (or Manhattan) get destroyed!

This trailer is a slow burn.

Also a good sign: the director isn’t some noob. We’re talking about Simon Kinberg.

More positive signs: the gang is back together, including Michael Fassbender as young Magneto (yes!) and James McAvoy as Professor Xavier.

Finally: The entire mood of the trailer is gritty and dark, but not in a forced, DC way.

I’m far more impressed than I expected and actually want to see this in the theater. 

Here’s why movies and shows are so good today vs years past

Sure, there are stinkers–bad movies and terrible shows on the Glowing Tube–but overall, we are living in a golden age for entertainment on Whatever Type of Screen You Prefer.

Why is that?

A few theories:

1) Looking good is half the battle

In the old days, most movies and shows (a) were cheaply made and (b) looked cheaply made. The real exception to this are sitcoms filmed in a studio, which look about the same. Everything else? Massive differences in production values. 

So when a film truly looked good–typically because it had a great director and a big budget–it blew everything else out of the water.

The difference was even more stark on television. A great example: back in the day, BBC seemed to take pride in the worst possible production values on the planet. 

Lighting, costumes, camera angles–all that matters. You notice bad production values the most when it comes to terrible monster costumes and special effects.

These days, everybody has upped their game. Even bad movies and shows LOOK good.

And CGI has gotten cheap enough that average TV shows can afford to do special effects you used to only see in blockbuster movies.

2) Massive competition

When there were only a few big studios, and three major TV networks, competition wasn’t nearly as tough.

Today, you have movie studios around the world cranking out more films than ever, plus 3.53 bazillion cable channels making content along with Netflix and Amazon making shows AND movies.

There’s never been more choices.

This has two counter-intuitive effects: (1) it’s easier to get things made, since far more sources might bankroll it, and (2) killing a flawed project or series is easier, too, since there are plenty of other projects that deserve a shot.

The fact that most movies and series don’t become amazing successes isn’t the real point. You can’t predict which ones break out and make mountains of money. 

Can’t win if you don’t play. 

So everybody plays, and takes risks, because being safe and conservative isn’t the way to hit a home-run.

That creative, competitive environment helps give birth to today’s great shows and movies.

3) CGI takes planning, and great planning makes for great stories

With production values good across the board, and special effects cheaper than ever, what makes a movie or show stand out and break out?

A few years ago, when cheesy CGI spread across the land, I hated it. Terrible CGI was easy to spot and immediately killed your suspension of disbelief.

Today, CGI is incredibly advanced.

Here’s the unintended side-effect, though: great CGI is more affordable than ever, but it still takes a lot of time, money and most of all, planning. 

You can’t rush it. 

And good planning makes for good storytelling.

There’s a reason Pixar is famous for great stories. They know exactly how long it takes to do an animated movie. 

If they screw up Act 3, the director doesn’t call back the actors and do reshoots for a few weeks. Redoing all that footage in an animated movie takes a lot more work.

That’s why Pixar goes crazy with storyboarding and planning the structure of each film. You have to nail that story before you commit. This is why Pixar spends so much time emphasizing storytelling, and perfected their 22 Rules, which are worth checking out. Roll film: 

With live actors, you can shoot hundreds of hours of footage and a great editor can take all that footage and do the structure and storytelling.

Can’t do that with animation–or CGI-heavy movies, which is just about everything today.

The more action and CGI you use, the more important planning and storyboarding becomes.

I think this is a key reason why Marvel has been on a hot streak. Every one of their superhero movies takes a ton of green screen and CGI work. They know it. And they have to plan not just for each movie, but how all the different movies tie together, with setups and payoffs stretching all the way back to the first Iron Man movie.

 

The simple secret behind why the trailer for CAPTAIN MARVEL is great

captain marvel first movie trailer

CAPTAIN MARVEL may or may not be a great movie–we won’t know until 2019–but the first trailer is great. Take a look, then we’ll chat about why it works.

Let’s talk about two reasons why this works before we get to the third reason, the biggest deal.

Good Move Number 1: A tight focus on introducing us to a new hero

I’m a pretty good Everyman when it comes to superhero movies. People know who Batman, Wonder Woman, Iron Man and Spiderman are. You don’t need to spend any time introducing them in a trailer.

Average people do NOT know who Captain Marvel is, and when you want to sell a billion dollars worth of movie tickets, you need to introduce people to that character. 

This trailer does a great job of giving us a first look at Captain Marvel.

Not her powers. Not her entire life story. There’s still a lot of mystery and unanswered questions, which is great. But you get a feel for her.

Other trailers tend to focus on the villain, which I usually a good move. Villains are inherently more interesting. Villains rule, heroes drool.

In this case, they were smart to keep the camera on Captain Marvel.

Good Move Number 2: Nice little cameos, but no surplus of sidekicks and love interests

Sidekicks and love interests can crowd out a hero, especially in a trailer.

This is a particular problem in superhero movies, where the first movie almost always has the hero’s origin story PLUS the best villain, to make sure the movie doesn’t bomb and there’s a sequel. And yes, there’s always a love interest and a sidekick.

Then the second movie has TWO villains and a new sidekick or three, plus a different love interest.

The third movie has THREE villains, I kid you not, before the series collapses and the studio reboots the whole mess. This happened with the first Spiderman series, Batman, you name it. It’s an epidemic.

So putting sidekicks, love interests and the villain’s henchmen in a trailer is always an achy breaky big mistakey. Stick to the hero, or the villain–or the hero and the villain.

This trailer keeps the cameos nice and short. Samuel L. Jackson with hair and two eyes! Agent Coulson!

Good Move Number 3: This trailer is a proper tease

Bad movie trailers either (a) confuse you or (b) give away the entire plot of the movie.

Here, have a look:

Great trailers tease you the right way.

They ask narrative questions without answering them, making you curious. What happens?

And this trailer made me curious.

How did she get her powers, and what can she do with them? Why did she fall to Earth? Who are the bad guys, and what do they want?

VERDICT:

Like 99 percent of the population, I knew absolutely nothing about the character of Captain Marvel, and this first movie trailer did the job of introducing her and making me curious. Nicely done.

Zombie movies are NOT standard horror movies

zombie woman angelina jolie

Zombie movies are epic and wonderful and far, far superior to the Standard Horror Movie featuring horny teenagers getting mowed down by the Boogeyman, or silly scientists who create genetically modified super-sharks which, of course, escape their tanks and EAT EVERYONE.

People–especially those who wear tweed and like to talk about “dialectical materialism” all the time–tend to lump horror movies along with other B movie trash, including zombie movies.

They are wrong.

Zombie movies are NOT like your Standard Horror Movie.

Here’s why:

(1) They are better.

(2) They feature zombies.

(3) Zombies rock.

Seriously: zombie movies are different. Let’s pry open the skull of moviegoers — and people who read Stephen King and other horror novels — to see what’s really going on, which is more interesting than you’d expect.

Continue reading “Zombie movies are NOT standard horror movies”

Take a peek inside the nightmare machine

As a huge fan of movies, including zombie and horror movies (two different things!), I love getting a peek behind the curtain.

This is a beautiful, beautiful look at horror sound effects. Just a treasure.

A beautiful map to movies

Zoom in on this masterpiece by David Honnorat.

Start somewhere familiar, in one of your favorite haunts, and follow a back road to hidden treasures, films you didn’t know existed.

There’s an explosion of obscure movies now, with Netflix, Amazon and others bankrolling films that wouldn’t have been made 10 years ago.

I’ll give a pitch for two: THE EDGE OF TOMORROW and SHIMMER LAKE. Here’s the trailer for the second one, which deserves a lot more love. Fire up Netflix and watch this thing. It’s a better movie-in-reverse than MEMENTO.

Welcome to the age of the meta-story

There’s a disturbing trend in Hollywood where studio execs would rather greenlight movies based on board games and toys from the ’80s than original ideas.

Yet I’m not overly worried about getting swamped with a sea of sequels to BATTLESHIP or RAMPAGE.

The deeper, more enduring trend in books, movies and video games? Meta-stories.

STAR WARS, HARRY POTTER, LORD OF THE RINGS, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Batman Arkham games, WESTWORLD, GAME OF THRONES–they best series are true meta stories.

Notice I didn’t list some big franchises, like the STAR TREK reboot, the DC non-universe and the MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: TOM CRUISE DOES ALL HIS OWN STUNTS movies. They don’t fall in the same category.

So what’s a meta-story?

A book or movie can have sequels with the same hero (or group of heroes and sidekicks) without being a meta-story. Think of 99 percent of most shows on HBO, Netflix or this thing I called “network television.” They’re episodic. Sure, it’s the same universe and same characters. The stories being told, though, are separate and distinct.

This is why you can binge-watch LAW AND ORDER: PICK A SERIES, ANY SERIES, WE HAVE LOTS and it doesn’t matter if they skip around seasons and whatnot.

This is also why you can take all 20-some of the Reacher novels by Lee Child (my fav) and read them in any order. Because yes, Reacher is in every one of them, but otherwise, they aren’t really that connected. Separate stories each time. Different villains, different themes, different locations.

Meta-story is the difference between Marvel owning a license to print money while DC, with better characters (they have Batman, for God’s sake) struggles and reshoots and just can’t get it going.

Building the beast

It’s simple, really. Forget about the hero.

Yes, the hero is what people focus on, typically. That’s the star of the show, right?

Meta-stories often don’t have a singular hero. Think about Marvel–there are dozens of heroes.

The acid test, the way to see whether a series of books and movies is episodic or a meta-story, is to look at the villain(s).

Is it Villain-of-the-Week or does the series feature One Big Baddie?

HARRY POTTER is all about Voldemort, who’s winning the whole time until Harry literally dies and comes back to beat him.

THE LORD OF THE RINGS has a fellowship of heroes–not a singular hero–facing off against One Big Baddie who happens to be a big glowing eye.

Marvel was brilliant in planting Infinity Stones in every movie and having Thanos lurking in the background the whole time as the One Big Baddie, a villain so good they’ve managed to do what, 20-some movies as part of this arc? Amazing.

 

You get the idea.

If you’re writing a series, just remember this: Villains rule, heroes drool.

Video

Top 10 movie fights that are so bad, they circle back to good

As a huge fan of movies, especially action movies, I’ve seen a lot of cinematic fights.

Fist fights. Gun fights.

Kickboxing, MMA, ninjas, lightsaber duels, you name it.

And this video brings back memories. Bet I’m not the only person who remembers the mistake known as GYMKATA.

Here’s why THE MEG works

The surprise hit of the summer? THE MEG, starring Jason Statham.

Here’s why this movie works, even if you know the ending. (Spoiler: I don’t need to tell you the ending. Come on.)

1) Monster in the House is a powerful and primal story

THE MEG isn’t a horror movie, actually.

In a true horror movie, the hero is actually the monster, who’s punishing society for its sins. That’s why the monster in horror movies is the star who keeps returning for the sequels.

Cineplexes around the world are littered with the corpses of horror movies that forgot this rule and let the monster lose. It doesn’t work. That’s now how the story is structured.

Monster in the House is the phrase screenwriter Blake Synder gave to stories like THE MEG, JAWS, ALIEN and FATAL ATTRACTION.

The setup: There’s a monster in an enclosed place and either you kill it or it kills you.

Nothing could be more simple or powerful. This story hits us right in the caveman feels.

And it’s a story that’ll always work.

2) Jason Statham sells tickets

There are actors like Gary Oldman who can disappear into their roles.

Jason Statham and Dwayne Johnson never disappear. Neither does Chris Pratt, whether he’s saving the galaxy or saving dinosaurs.

You could send a film crew to follow Statham, Johnson or Pratt around as they did their grocery shopping at Safeway and it would still be entertaining.

Statham has a particular brand of charm and is especially believable when he does action scenes. You don’t think there’s a stunt double or CGI making it happen.

That’s box office gold.

3) Movies like THE MEG help us conquer our fears

Horror movies tell us no, humans don’t win and don’t deserve to win. The monster kills everybody, punishing society for their sins, and there’s nothing you can do about it. The message of horror movies is, “Don’t commit whatever sin we’re highlighting in this story.”

Movies like THE MEG give us the opposite message: Even if there’s a seemingly unstoppable monster out there, that doesn’t mean we have to give in to fear.

We can beat that monster–or any other monster–if we’re brave and clever and work together.