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Archive for May, 2005

TV versus Movies, Story versus Plot

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Lee Goldberg’s A Writer’s Life points us to a conveniently-timed follow-up to last night’s discussion about the differences between the storytelling modes of TV and movies, John Rogers has an in-depth dissection of story versus plot that hits on exactly that topic. John notes that on most TV shows, characters are trying to resume the status quo rather than truly growing and changing–but I’m happy to say he also points out that our hero Joss Whedon actually does incrementally change his characters over time such that the cumulative effect of those changes produces actual growth. And that cumulative effect is what I’m ultimately interested in as a writer and as a reader/viewer/consumer.

John’s post delves further into the crucial differences between story (what happens to your characters) versus plot (how it happens to your characters). I’d never heard that delineation before and I think it actually clarifies a couple of issues I’ve been working through in my head over the last week or so. Though he’s discussing screenwriting in particular, I think what he has to say about the three-act structure applies more or less universally across story formats.

(As a bonus, he uses Brad Bird’s brilliant screenplay for The Incredibles as his tool for demonstrating the difference.)

Written by Allen

May 31st, 2005 at 12:55 pm

Serving The Story

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Okay, any of you who haven’t seen Serenity yet — and that’s probably most of you, honestly — stay the hell away from this post if you have any intention of seeing the movie. I mean it. Don’t read any further. Well, OK, you can go a little further, but when you come to the SPOILER WARNING, know that I’m serious about that and you should move along to whatever’s next on your daily reading list. I’m going to talk about things you really, really shouldn’t know about in advance of seeing the movie.

Have I made myself clear? Good.

I’ve been thinking about Serenity pretty much round the clock since seeing it last Thursday night, and I’ve been thinking about the fundamental difference in the nature of storytelling between episodic television and movies. As much as I love movies, I’m more drawn to well-done TV shows. There’s a depth of characterization that episodic TV can attain that’s difficult for movies to reach…well, I think breadth of characterization might be more a accurate term.

I’ve always been more interested in watching a character’s growth (or deterioration) over time and movies just aren’t the ideal format for that kind of thing. They can do it, sure, but it’s rarely done all that well. Most movie series that have recurring characters tend to be action flicks, and yeah you can get some growth there, but there’s simply not enough time in a movie to get that into a character’s head. Further complicating my personal preferences: I like ensembles, and movie series (serii? serieses?) that track a group of characters and can give each of them the screen time necessary are rare.

Which brings me back around to Serenity, which springs forth in September from the torched TV series “Firefly.” This combo provides me the perfect opportunity for thinking about the modes of storytelling because, unlike most other TV-show-to-movie transitions (say, The X-Files), this one I actually care about.

Right here is that Big Damn Spoiler Warning, by the way.

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Written by Allen

May 30th, 2005 at 10:49 pm

Posted in Pop Culture,TV,Writing

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Monday Photo: Wishflower

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Laurel picking dandelions in Marblehead last weekend. We don’t know for sure what she wished for, but I’d bet it had something to do with food.

Written by Allen

May 30th, 2005 at 5:40 pm

Posted in Photography

Review: Serenity

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I found myself experiencing the same problem trying to decide on an approach for this review that I’d imagine the creators of Serenity faced: how to gear the movie/review so that it pleases both the rabid fanbase of the “Firefly” TV series from which the movie spawned and people who’ve never seen the show. It’s a difficult line to walk, for true. Considering the movie doesn’t come out for four months yet, I think what I have to say will be of most interest to fans of the show, so I’ll write on accordingly–though I’ll be spoiler-free, don’t you fret. Believe me, I don’t want to ruin the impact of this movie for anybody.

The good news for “Firefly” fans: the property translates to the big screen quite well. There’s not an awful lot of introductory exposition about the hows and the whys of the “Firefly” ‘verse; Joss Whedon and company seem to figure you know the setup already or you’ll figure it out on the way. The emphasis on “space western” here falls fully on the “space,” which I found a little disappointing (very little) but completely understand: people coming into this universe fresh, people who’ve only seen the trailers, will be expecting more of the spaceships than the six-shooters.

But if that translation of concept from television to movie is good news, then here’s better: the cast more than lives up to the challenges before them…especially Nathan Fillion. Fillion’s Captain Mal Reynolds anchors not only the crew of Serenity but also the emotional center of the film. Mal runs a shade darker here than he did on the show (the final episode of which takes place six months before the movie begins), especially in the film’s second half. Mal’s in nearly every scene and it’s his character arc we follow–and Fillion does a fantatsic job of holding the screen and the audience’s interests with Mal’s intense internal conflict.

Be sure to check out our special Moviegeekz: 7 Days of Serenity section!

It’s not just Fillion, though: almost none of these actors would be considered “movie actors,” yet each is more than capable of playing their roles large. Both the characters and the actors who play them prove plenty substantial enough to drive a film. And though I believe all of the cast did fine jobs, I hav to give special commendation to Summer Glau for her spectacular work as River. For someone who’s still almost a complete newcomer to the industry, she brings some impressive stuff to the movie, both emotionally (River probably has the widest range of emotions to manage) and physically (the balletic grace during River’s scenes of mayhem belie her…well, her ballet training).

Serenity‘s villain, too, is pure Whedon: “The Operative” (the only name he’s given) can execute the most brutal, terrible acts of violence and destruction, yet does so in such a way that it’s hard not to like him, at least a little. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the man with smooth charm, eloquence, intelligence and his own strange sense of honor. He knows that he’s a monster, that his actions can be pure evil–but he sincerely believes that those horrific actions are in service to a greater good.

And speaking of bad guys, I can’t not discuss the Reavers, the very epitome of evil in the Firefly ‘verse. The Reavers play an enormously important role here, both in terms of what they mean to this movie and the future of the franchise–yet we still never get a good look at one. What we do see, though, is scary as hell, all the more terrifying because of what’s left to our imaginations. These Reavers and their final confrontation with our Big Damn Heroes produce what had to be the most nail-biting, stomach-churning thirty minutes I’ve seen in any movie in ages.

Serenity (2005)
Grade: A
Written and Directed By: Joss Whedon
Starring: Nathan Fillion Gina Torres Alan Tudyk Morena Baccarin Adam Baldwin Jewel Staite Sean Maher Summer Glau Ron Glass Chiwetel Ejiofor
Studio: Universal

And a lot of that tension, of course, comes because I’ve grown to care about these characters so damn much…which brings me around at last to discussing Mr. Whedon himself. The skills of Whedon the writer still outpace those of Whedon the director, though not by as much as I might have thought. His fantastic screenplay had every bit of what I expected: the humor, the character development, the moments of inspiration, the shocking punches to the gut. Whedon had nine characters from the show to carry over and introduce, explain and advance in a two-hour action flick, and he served all of his characters well.

Whedon’s direction was surprisingly solid–and I say “suprisingly” not because I don’t think he’s a good director but because the process of directing a film differs so much from directing a TV show. The fact that he did such a good job for his first feature was impressive. Though there were still moments that felt a little too much like an episode of a TV show, shot selections that betrayed his beginnings, they were few. And the man undoubtedly knows how to build tension (see for reference that anguishing last thirty minutes). I also have to give him a smile and a nod for his opening, a five-minute single shot that introduces the entire crew of Serenity and introduces the entirety of the ship itself–Robert Altman would be proud.

I still have some small concerns about how well the movie will play to the uninitiated. It’s hard for me to tell how well audiences not already familiar with the property will take to it–I can’t watch it through the eyes of someone not already in love with these characters. And I’m a little afraid of the reactions if people go into the theater expecting Lucas-level visual effects from a movie with a $30-million budget. The effects were solid and professional, but they’re certainly not Star Wars-ian.

But Serenity‘s not about the special effects, it’s about the characters–and those characters create special effects, indeed.

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Written by Allen

May 29th, 2005 at 5:34 pm

Review: Star Wars, Episode III – Revenge of the Sith

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So at least we’ve seen the whole story; the ends of the circle finally meet in the middle. We’ve seen how innocence (well, angry and whiny frustrated innocence, anyway) finds itself corrupted by absolute (and a bit melodramatic) evil and becomes the face of the devil for a generation of consumers. We’ve seen enough poor acting, worse directing and execrable dialogue to last me another thirty years.

But all snarkiness aside, did I like Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith? Yeah, actually…yeah I did.

For all of the problems the movie has–and though they’re numerable, I’m not going to go into too much detail here because honestly it’s the same things that were wrong with The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones–the good for me in ROTS solidly outweighed the bad.

To begin with, we have the single best performance found in any of the six Star Wars movies: Ewan McGregor must have betrayed George Lucas’ direction (or lack thereof) much the way Anakin Skywalker betrayed the Jedi. (I’m sorry, that was too geeky even for me.) I find it impossible to believe at this point that Lucas could draw that kind of performance out of an actor. Not only has McGregor’s Sir Alec Guinness impersonation continued to improve, but A} he actually seems to be having fun with the part early on in the movie, and B} flying in the face of everything Lucas’ direction aspires to, he conveys real honest-to-God emotion after Anakin turns to the dark side of the Force. I’m surprised Lucas didn’t just CGI all of the emotion right on out of there in post-production.

Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)
Grade: B
Written and Directed By: George Lucas
Starring: Ewan McGregor Hayden Christensen Natalie Portman Ian McDiarmid
Studio: 20th Century Fox

Hayden Christensen manages to be far less whiny in his second go-round as Anakin Skywalker, though it doesn’t make him any more likable–he’s still too quick to damn perceived slights against him and blames others for his own shortcomings…a perfect recipe for being manipulated toward embracing the dark side. Anakin also confirms in ROTS what’s been strongly suggested ever since The Empire Strikes Back: face of the devil or no, Darth Vader’s never been any more than a glorified flunky. Vader may be the public face of the Empire, but Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is its black heart.

Anakin might very well be the most powerful Jedi Knight there is, but he doesn’t have any balls: he can’t even stand up for himself when the Jedi Council thinks he’s a stooge for Palpatine and he can’t do it even when he knows Palpatine is manipulating him. Poor Anakin just never seems all that bright–he’s a do-what-I’m-told instead of a do-what-I-say.

His story boils down to two absolutely pivotal moments. In the first, he makes the decision to turn to the dark side (and make no mistake, it was a conscious decision, whether he was manipulated into making it or not). And in the second, he seals his path and forever robs himself of any chance at redemption–even to the point of revoking whatever redemption he might have found in his son’s eyes at the end of Return of the Jedi. Some deeds simply can never be undone, and the acts performed by the newly-minted Lord Vader are absolutely unforgivable.

And I believe that Obi-Wan Kenobi would agree with me. The revelation of that moment, that horrific act of young Vader’s, kills something inside Obi-Wan and his anguish is palpable during the final lightsaber duel between the two. This battle between two men who had been close as brothers produces the most emotionally-packed moments of any of the series–and it casts the duel between these same two characters in the original Star Wars in an entirely new light. All of the passion missing from Episodes I and II surfaces in this battle that actually lives up to thirty years worth of buildup. Impressive.

I wish I could take this paragraph to talk about Natalie Portman and her final journey as Padme; I wish I could tell you that she eloquently expressed the tragedy of her character in a tear-inducing performace. But I can’t, because she was reduced to a prop in this movie. R2-D2 displayed more personality than she did. But we love Natalie, so we blame that on Lucas.

What I will talk about, though, are the visuals. Can I get an “OMFG,” people? All of the spectacular eye-candy of the first two prequels was as motes of dust compared to the visual feast to the opening starship battle over Coruscant–the single most incredible such sequence yet committed to celluloid. The production design and visual effects were, unsurprisingly, top-flight across the board. If Lucas could have restrained himself to directing the CGI scenes and let someone like Joss Whedon handle anything having to do with real human actors, I think its possible this movie might have gone down as one of the best science fiction movies ever made.

But he didn’t, so Revenge of the Sith will have to content itself with being the third-best of the Star Wars movies (behind Empire and Star Wars, ahead of Jedi, Clones and the loathsome Menace).

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Written by Allen

May 29th, 2005 at 2:25 pm