Saturday, August 27, 2016

Notes on the Movie Don't Breathe

Notes on the Movie Don't Breathe

Occasionally a movie comes out that serves as a great example of a particular technique in storytelling. In the movie Don't Breath, the technique is developing and sustaining suspense.

The movie opens at a great height over a residential neighborhood in Detroit. Something is happening on a street below. As the camera slowly moves down, it becomes apparent that an older man is dragging a young woman along the middle of a street.

The way this moment is created suggests a metaphor for the story. As we move in on an event, our perception of what we are seeing and our understanding can change.

This may seem like a simple point, but consider the opening scene in the movie The Lovely Bones, loosely based on the novel. The movie opens with a father explaining the life of a penguin trapped in a snow globe to his daughter. But the explanation doesn't speak to what the book is about, and the problem is, the movie uses narration directly taken from the book in the opening scenes.

What the movie The Lovely Bones is about is slightly out of focus (to be generous). What Don't Breathe is about is clearly suggested by the first shot of the film.

With inexperienced writers, often the first lines of action in a screenplay are used to introduce characters or locations.

In a weakly written novel, the opening lines aren't used to convey a story, but to introduce characters, locations, and plot. But without a context, the details don't convey a storyt. They convey a writer isn't sure how to tell a particular story.

The movie The Lovely Bones could have used that opening image to suggest a story different from the book, but that would have meant re-imagining the story being told as a movie that is not the same as the book.

Returning to Don't Breathe, we meet three young people robbing a house in Detroit. For two of the teens, the robberies are about getting out of Detroit and having street cred. For one teen, it's helping his father financially, and he's also smitten with the girl in the group.

Yes, we could use the word 'introduction' to convey the purpose of these scenes. But they also introduce character whose lives are in flux.

That sets up the major thrust of the plot, that they will break into the house of a blind man who has won a court settlement and rob him.

They get inside, the girl even finds the money, but getting out of the house, and why the basement door has a huge lock, will involve a steadily escalating tension.

What explains the actions of all the characters, including the blind man, are those quick, brief details in the opening scenes.

These is violence in the movie, so it's not for everyone. And when people get hurt in this film, we're allowed to share their pain and desperation. And up until the final shot of the movie, we can't be sure how this movie will end.

Recommended for folks who like both a clever plot and strong characterization.


To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise & The Spirit of Storytelling, available on Amazon's Kindle and Barnes and Noble's Nook.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

FREE RANGE POETRY presents Leanne Gabrel, Barbara LaMorticella, MF McAuliffe

Monday, September 12, 2016
Northwest Branch Library
2300 NW Thurman Street

An open mic will precede featured poets.
Sign up at 6:15 pm. Reading 6:30 pm – 7:45 pm.

Leanne Grabel is a poet, memoirist, illustrator and semi-retired special ed teacher and language arts teacher. In love with mixing genres and media, Grabel has written and produced numerous spokenword shows, including “The Lighter Side of Chronic Depression”; “Anger: The Musical”; “Badgirls”; and “The Little Poet.” Grabel's books include Brontosaurus; Lonesome & Very Quarrelsome Heroes; Flirtations; Short Poems by a Short Person; and most recently, Assisted Living, a collection of rectangular illustrated prose poems. Grabel has just completed an anthology of 35 years of graphic prose poems, The Circus of Anguish & Mirth that will be published in 2017. The summer project is turning Brontosaurus into a graphic novel.

Barbara LaMorticella watches the clouds from a cabin outside Portland. Her poetry has appeared in many anthologies, including the Pacific Northwestern Spiritual Poetry Anthology; Intimate Kisses; Not a Muse; and most recently (2015) Raising Lilly Ledbetter: Women Poets Occupy the Workspace, and She Holds the Face of the World, the 10th anniversary anthology of the journal VoiceCatchers. She won the Holbrook Award for Outstanding Contributions to Oregon Liberary Arts and the first Oregon Literary Arts fellowship for Women Writers. Her second collection of poems, Rain on Waterless Mountain, was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award.

MF McAuliffe has worked formally and informally as a house-cleaner, political pollster, teacher and librarian in schools and colleges in South Australia, Melbourne, Los Angeles, and Portland, Oregon. She also co-authored the poetry collection Fighting Monsters, the limited-edition artist's book Golems Waiting Redux, and the novella, Seattle. The Crucifixes and Other Friday Poems will be published this fall. In 2002 she and R. V. Branham co-founded the Portland-based, multilingual magazine Gobshite Quarterly. In 2008 they co-founded Reprobate / GobQ Books, where she continues as commissioning editor.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Notes on Suicide Squad

When a big budget Hollywood film fails to satisfy, the underlying problem is often skewed story mechanics. Suicide Squad is a great example.

The foundation of what I teach is that a story creates movement, and the movement transports an audience. So a film or story that doesn't begin by going somewhere starts with a problem. The language often used to describe this kind of storytelling is a need to introduce characters. The flaw in this logic is that generally, the story doesn't begin moving forward until after all the introductions.

An example of how a film with a large cast can be done well is L.A. Confidential. It's a story about illusion, reality, and identity. Because that's introduced up front, and all the major characters have issues around identity, the opening scenes of the film both introduces the story and sets it into motion.

None of that happens in Suicide Squad. I had no idea what the story was about until deep into the film. The plot was something about a witch and her brother destroying the world and taking over. I always have the same problem with this type of scenario. If the world is destroyed and humanity wiped out, what's left to take over?

That said, at least those in the Suicide Squad have something to do now, battling faceless enemies for an obscure reason until they reach what Syd Field calls Plot Point Two, that moment in a story when all seems lost. In a typical Hollywood film, this is about 90 minutes in. At PPII in SS we finally get a suggestion for a story, that the evil doers who have survived to this point are more moral than the normal people who brought them together and command them.

That's fine, and if it had been introduced in the opening scenes of the film, the story and all those character introductions would have had a context and served a purpose. Think of a version of Rocky where you don't find out that Rocky is a nobody who wants to be a somebody until 90 minutes into the film. Think of Harry Potter (the novels, not the wretched first two movies) where you don't find out for hundreds of pages that both Harry and the Dursleys want to fit in.

The first two Harry Potter movies are wretched because like SS, all the effort goes into introducing characters and locations and it's not until deep into the films that a story emerges.

Not introducing what a story is about until PPII is a common problem for big budget Hollywood films that fail to find an audience. I actually saw a Hollywood remake of a Japanese horror film that didn't set out the point of the story until the last line of dialogue.

What this translates to for the actors involved is that since they aren't given characters to play (characters motivated by some internal purpose), the actors are left to pose in their scenes. I feel great sympathy for actors in such films, although in this case I assume they are well-paid.

All this isn't to say there isn't some fun along the way in Suicide Squad, or that a few of the characters don't make a strong impression, it just that the film never gains traction. It just slogs along.

A small point, one of the evil witches is killed by a fairly small explosive device, which could have been delivered a multitude of different ways.

And that's a big problem when the mechanics of a story transporting an audience fail: everyone in the audience has time on their hands to think about silly plot issues. Mystery Science Theater 3000 would have had a field day with Suicide Squad. The funny comments would write themselves.

The film does demonstrate another issue I come across in scripts with a multitude of characters, the writer/director ends up playing traffic cop, expending a great deal of energy just to make sure all the right characters have something to do at the right times. Bringing in studio executives to try and fix story structure problems (that they don't understand) generally create a bigger muddle of mixed tones and dialogue that never fixes the underlying problems.

I'm assuming Suicide Squad has enough of an audience that we'll see more of these characters. Hopefully the current writer/director will be promoted and someone else brought in to direct the sequel.


To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise & The Spirit of Storytelling, available on Amazon's Kindle and Barnes and Noble's Nook.