a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Monday, February 06, 2006

The Disconnect

I think that one of the things that helps me do my job, is that I'm fairly mainstream in my tastes, while at the same time appreciating things that are art-house-interesting.

It helps me identify what the really good things are in what I read.

Still, I have blind spots, a sort of disconnect from projects that I don't really love, but which turn out to be the favorite movies of a lot of people.

Mostly, this shows up when scripts become movies, and are put out there to be filtered through everyone's tastes.

A while back, I read the book that Mystic River was based on. I thought there were some interesting things to it, but that the central story was flawed. Movie comes out, and I feel the same way.

But a lot of people loved it.

And that needs to be a concern of mine. I need to try to understand what people are getting that I'm not (not that I thought that Mystic River was a bad movie, I'm just saying that good acting almost saved a bad plot -- in my opinion).

I need to understand (and so do critics, though many don't) that reading/seeing a ton of movies changes the way I approach all movies, something that the average moviegoer doesn't experience.

This past year, the one movie that I didn't love that a lot of people did was A History of Violence. Though I think that I know the disconnect on that one.

I think the problem with that movie -- for me -- is that I read a lot of bad scripts with a similar premise. There's an ordinary guy who is pushed to his limits, and it all gets violent at the end.

So for me, ho-hum. Other than the thing that happens in the middle of the script (in the front yard, no spoilers) there wasn't a single thing in the movie that surprised me.

Plus it all felt so unresolved; I don't think it explored the whole family dynamic at all.

Yet for many people who weren't me, who weren't burned out on what is sort of a b-movie violent showdown plot, it worked. There was enough to it that was still surprising to make it a gripping tale for them, and I get that -- and I think I need to get that.

My jadedness hurt me on this one....

Or maybe it just helped me see that this Emperor wore less clothes than many people thought.

So was it a good movie, or only a good movie for a certain (big) slice of the population? Who is really wrong, and who is right, and is it even possible to say that on any kind of firm level?

It's hard to tell sometimes.

I liked King King, though I admit that it's way too long, and too slow in spots. I liked a lot of Harry Potter 4, though the story there has some real holes too.

Yet if someone loves a movie, and honestly thinks it is great, who are we to say it is wrong?

When I was 14, I thought Steven Spielberg's "1941" was the best movie ever.

It isn't, of course. But maybe, for a certain 14-year-old boy in a certain time and place -- it is.


At 1:48 PM, Blogger MaryAn Batchellor said...

So, what you've touched on is what I have discovered (during my short tenure as a screenwriter) as fundamental truth: A lousy film can be saved by exceptional acting just as an exceptional film can be derailed by lousy acting.

At 3:24 PM, Blogger Wamba said...

So, can I save a mediocre script by altering the character description?

...she is GEORGIA HAYWORTH, a neurotic woman in her mid-30's played by someone with real acting talent.

At 4:32 PM, Anonymous Brabbit McRabbit said...

I'm with you on A History of Violence. I thought it was dull. I kept waiting for an interesting twist, but nothing really happened.

I was also disappointed with Capote and Good Night and Good Luck. They were decent movies, but I didn't think either warranted much acclaim. Capote was slow and boring, while Good Night and Good Luck seemed like a drastically watered-down version of Network.

On the other hand, I liked The Constant Gardener quite a bit. The story was a bit absurd and the movie got cheesy at points, but the writing was solid and Meirelles is one of my favorite directors at the moment.

At 12:22 AM, Blogger Fun Joel said...

An excellent post. I've struggled, at times, with the same thing. I did so, publicly on my blog, about Constant Gardener (mcrabbit -- I have yet to see it, but I read it and wasn't impressed). It is an interesting thing. Less of a question when something we like turns out to be crap -- too many ways ot ruin a great script. Still, with Mystic Rver, I actually also read it for work (along with 2/3 of the rest of this town, apparently), but I totally got it right off the bat. You're right about the plot, somewhat, but what made it, beyond the acting, was the superbly complex characters. And the plot that actually had a lot of resonance for our times, I think. Just one man's not so humble opinion! ;-)

At 2:23 AM, Blogger Danny Stack said...

I think you've opened up a whole interesting can of worms about film/script appreciation, and, deep breath, complacent audiences who can choose to dismiss or flip for a flick at their whimsy.

I’ve been listening to a lot of Mark Kermode recently, mouthy but intelligent UK film critic, and I think he needs to realise that “seeing a ton of movies changes the way [he] approaches all movies, something that the average moviegoer doesn't experience.”

At 4:46 AM, Anonymous Joshua said...

loved History of Violence, just loved it . . . and I loved it because it wasn't the derivative violent one against many that we've seen from Cobra onward - for certain, those actions are in the plot, but the pov to it was far diffferent (more in line with peckinpah's Straw Dogs) and gave the violent actions of the plot real emotional punch.

And I was surprised, not that Viggo would stand up and fight, but how he did and why, who he was and why and mostly, how he family dealt with who he once had been and now was.

Great flick. I think you may have read too many bad versions of the story and a good one just didn't do it for you.

Just my opinion. But I hated King Kong.

At 6:13 AM, Blogger Thomas Crymes said...

I think so much relies on expectations. If you've seen enough movies, you will see a preview and go, "I know exactly where this is going, and I expect it to be an uninspired derrivative work."

When I hear people at work talk about this great movie they saw, and then hear what the movie title was, sometimes i almost wretch over how objectively bad I thought it was.

But I think it boils down to the simple truth that we will never know what the audience will like and why. And it is the reason that so many screenwriters are employed, and so many scripts are bought or optioned.

They don't know. You don't know. The audience doesn't even know until they see it.

It's like the guy trying to find patterns in the stock market in Pi. The second you solved the "What the audience wants" riddle you will achieve pure energy and ascend into the heavens.

It's the Holy Grail.

At 9:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Feel you on Mystic River but not on HOV. I liked it. I thought it was just as you stated, a bare bones story. Nothing fancy. With all the remakes and CGI going on today I thought that was gutsy on their part. I think audiences are all just waiting for the next big twist, the next big... whatever to make them say wow and every movie can't have it, or need it for that matter, IMO.

At 11:28 AM, Anonymous Joshua said...

Interestly enough, the writer of History of Violence is engaged in a debate with Craig at Artful Writer right now - pretty interesting.

At 5:55 PM, Blogger William said...

Good post here. I have to agree with you on the whole AHOV thing. I consider myself a Cronenberg fan and I feel like I must have seen a different film than everyone else did. It makes you question your taste sometimes when you anticipate something and then it doesn't work for you. Like, "What am I not seeing here?", I just didn't buy it even though I wanted to.

Don't listen to me though, I dislike a lot of what is out there. Studio or independent. I tend to like films that take chances but at the same time excecute in a real original way. Something like Being John Malkovich knocked me on my ass. but not for everyone. For some people I guess A History of Violence did that. Two recent films that I found to be in that way were Hustle and Flow and The Constant Gardener. I guess you just have to trust your gut at the end of the day.

Film and the process of making a film is so analyzed. What other industry is as publicly analyzed as much as the film industry? I think this effects our tastes too. People hear Die Hard 13: Baker's Dozen made X amount at the B.O. all of a sudden it's on the must see list.

As Fun Joel can attest to, sometimes the screenplay ain't the film. That path from word to print is rocky. So much can happen or not happen.

BTW I'm with you on 1941! Never understood why people didn't get it. It's hilarious!

At 7:21 PM, Blogger Brett said...

1941 has remained on my all time Top 10 list since the first time I heard that Jap submariner ("Real Japs?" "Nah-- WOODEN Japs, Cheeto...") point and scream "HORRYWOOOD!"

The poster pic of Wild Bill Kelso was my first and longest-used online avatar.

The framed poster hangs over my desk as we speak.

For me, Eddie Deezen's defining cinematic moment was when he declared "hey-- this grapefruit is rotten!"

I still light a prayer candle every year that Spielberg will finally commit to the sequel.

So don't you dare suggest that 1941was anything less than one of Mankind's greatest artistic monuments.
B (and don't you forget it)

At 8:15 PM, Blogger Steve Axelrod said...

Interesting post, but I think you make a mistake in doubting yourself. H of V was in fact a trite and predictable comic book movie, hyped beyond reason into some sort of 'important' essage movie. What was the message? Even nice guys have to kick ass sometimes if their mafia past catches up to them? Killing people improves your sex life?Those are useful. I often loathe movies everyone loves. I read scripts professionally for several years and it made me hate reading generally, but did nothing to contaminate my love for movies. I will gladly argue with anyone about something like... SIGNS, for instance, which may be the worst movie I've seen in the last ten years. Invaders 'allergic' to water invade the water planet? That's the twist? Powerful killer aliens can be defeated by locking them in some hick's pantry closet? The basic idea -- "let's shoot Independence Day in some religious freak's basement" just wasn't compelling. And it wasn't any more compelling when Spielberg did it (with three basements) in War Of The Worlds,another film I hated. Bad movies can be popular --look at Flashdance. That doesn't make you wrong. Stick to your guns, Scott!

At 9:01 PM, Anonymous George said...

Scott, Scott, Scott...just because you were deprived the enjoyment of a film I liked doesn't mean you have to start doubting yourself. You have great taste (most of the time). Sometimes a film just doesn't work for you. The reasons can be many. Headache, money woes, crazy neighbors, tight underwear. And I say, good. How boring would it be if we all agreed all the time?

Remember how pissed I was about KILL BILL, P1? Nobody was going to change my mind about that lame ass film. And I am a HUGE Tarantino fan. Then I started doubting myself. Did I miss something? Was there more there than I got? So when P2 came out and the reviews were through the roof it confirmed it. I had lost touch with what's good. I thought I must go see how Q wraps up the tale of The Bride. Boy, what a regret. Though Part 2 was a tad bit better than 1 it still sucked. It cost me another ten bucks and three hours of life I'll never get back because I started doubting myself. Shame on me.

The funny thing is one night, years from now, when your life is in a different place you might be surfing through the channels and rediscover AHOV. It might catch you off guard and you'll end up loving it. Who knows that may even happen to me with KB? Though I highly doubt it.

At 9:58 PM, Anonymous Phillip said...

Personally, I think critics can be manipulated just as much the opening weekend fanboys. I read Mystic River and liked it well enough but didn't think it would make a good movie...and I still don't. But three great actors, somber Oscar-oriented commercials and Clint in the full-bloom of his artistic renaissance duped many critics into claiming it was a better movie than it was.

I agree with you on HOV. There are few people who are bigger Cronenberg fans than I (I actually sat thru Stereo AND Crimes of the Future) but watching HOV might have been the single most under whelming experience of my life. I remember one guy at the theater yelling "You've got to be shitting me" during the final fade out. But you take a pulpy trifle add good actors, a respected director and slooooow it way down (no exploitative, adrenaline pumping MTV cutting for the unwashed masses) and the critics go Baa Baa like good little sheep. Shit, if it had been subtitled they'd have given it even better reviews.

At 10:49 PM, Blogger Fun Joel said...

A fave line from 1941:

Turn this thing around. We're going to Cuba!

At 1:07 AM, Blogger Danny Stack said...

I didn't like The Princess Bride when I first saw it. I was like, whatever, it's okay I guess. With the benefit of repeat viewing however...

At 3:13 AM, Anonymous Peter said...

Back when I was reading scripts for work with far my regularity than I am now, I would occassionally read a script I didn't care for which eventually became a movie that I liked.

And so i had a few moments of deep insecurity - was I a bad reader? Was I not "seeing the movie" in my head? Was I just totally missing the point?

Over time, those instances proved to be very few and far between. Far more often was reading a script I didn't like and then eventually seeing it made into a movie I didn't like.

Take "A History of Violence". I was utterly unimpressed by the bland script and nearly bored to tears during the actual film.

I considered walking out of a free screening, not because the movie was "bad" per se, but it just totally failed to engross me. I already knew the big "twist" in the middle - but, then again, so did everyone else who had seen a single advertisement for the movie.

Hell, even anyone seeing the movie in a vacuum who is reasonably intuitive would be able to see the twists coming a mile away.

What is with this movie? Like Scott, the premise has been used to make so many bad screenplays that I couldnt' get excited about it at all.

But the film itself is just kind of pointless. It's slow, it's painfully predictable and its themes are simulatneously simplistic and muddled to the point of irrelevancy.

This is one of the biggest "Emperor's New Clothes" movies in some time.

But, William Hurt was kinda fun. I woke up during the last ten minutes...

At 4:54 AM, Blogger Danny Stack said...

In HOV's defence, I would say that it had an alternative and slightly more character approach to a gun story about a mob man trying to avoid his past.

It had a slow build as it focused on Viggo & Maria and their family, and their performances are very good, which helps the screenplay look better (do scripts actually get nominated for the screenplay or on the finished film? I'd wager the latter).

Anyway, I don't think the film tries to suck you into any kind of 'twist'. It's quite obvious what's going to happen but it had an efficiency of craft to develop the plot so that certain things happen at a certain time.

I enjoyed HOV (haven't read the script); the attempt at interesting characters, the performances from all concerned and Cronenberg's direction. I didn't like the ending. The film's not perfect but it provided an entertaining alternative to the glut of genre flicks, and maybe that's all it takes to grab some notice and earn a nomination.

At 5:16 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I bought Mystery River on DVD only two days ago. I've read the book but I only realized that when I started watching the film.

The world of the film has this rich and authentic feel to it - therein lies its main attraction, I think. On this level, and most levels actually, it's very faithful to the book. One gets a very vivid sense of the time, place and personalities.

I think the audience for this film (40 plus I'd say) are the kind of people who tend to be forgiving when it comes to plot or structure faults if the film engages them emotionally.

I enjoyed the film even though it was ultimately disappointing. The beginning was fine but as it wore on it became more and more a showcase for the actors while the plot, or the murder mystery itself, somehow receeded into total unimportance.


The emotionalism (Sean Penn got something like 10 scenes to wallow in 10 different facets of his grief) was really really hard to stomach. The screentime could have been put to much better use.

The fact that an actor can dredge up all those emotions doesn't mean that the audience will buy into them.

Less is often more. Like the suspenseful incident in the crowded church when the Sean Penn character, alone of all the people present, hears the distant police sirens and becomes apprehensive. This is the only moment in the film I felt anything for this fundamentally unlikable character.

- Anna

At 10:09 AM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

I think external factors also can play a huge part. I wasn't in a great mood when I saw A History of Violence, so that certainly didn't help. In other movies, a disruptive audience can break your concentration and hurt your enjoyment of what might be a really good movie.

Though the really great movies are the ones that can survive all that.

At 12:10 PM, Blogger Craig Moorhead said...

Whether or not these movies are good or bad and whether or not I agree or disagree with you is moot. I know where you're coming from, most definitely. But what you like and how it hits you is to important to doubt. That's where your work is going to come from. It can be a lonely place when you don't adore the move your friends think is brilliant, sure. But don't rationalize yourself out of your opinion (as I have definitely done too many times).

As Duke Ellington said "If it sounds good, it is good." By the same token, if it looks like crap, it is. Plain and simple.

At 1:19 PM, Blogger Thomas Crymes said...

The Audience. Time of Day. Your personal life.

They all have an impact on your enjoyment of a movie.

I like critics who actually integrate their personal experiences into a movie.

Sometimes I know I could really use a good comedy, cuz I'm in the mood to laugh.

And in a weird/eerie psychic way. I think people's attitidudes about a movie affect other people. I've seen it with group of people. Silently they will watch a flick, and a lot of them will have a similar opinion afterward, and its not just because the group tends to like the same things.

Movies are a social phenomenon. In some ways, watching them in solitude is completely inappropriate. I know many disagree with that, but oh well.

At 11:48 PM, Anonymous George said...

"if it looks like crap, it is. Plain and simple"

Hmm? It depends on what you're looking at. Most people feel that way about modern art. Take Jackson Pollack's work for example. Many think it's crap. "My kid could do better!" I've heard countless times. What's amazing about Pollack's splatter paintings is just that. They look so childish, so simple, so obvious. But back when he did it no one had ever done it before. Think about for a moment. No one had ever done that before. And if you try to recreate what he did you'll see how intricate his paintings actually are. There is nothing simple or childish about them. They were a huge quantum breakthrough that have gone on to influence artists, musicians, stylists, architects and designers all over the world ever since. That's making an impact. Again, no one had ever done it before and a lot of people just didn't get them. They still don't. I'm actually just a casual fan of his paintings, but I respect what they represent. An imagination breaking free of the constraints of all the fine art that came before it. Think about how difficult it is for us to write an original screenplay. Pollack did it in a form that had over two thousand years of history. Yet, still, many think his work crap.

Mind you, I'm not trying to make a case that A History of Violence is a work of art. It's not. I just think it's a very good movie that has a lot to offer if taken without expectations because it's not a thriller or an action film. It's an insightful study of legacy. If you disagree that's cool. We don't all have to agree all the time. I just take exception to the notion that if you don't like something then that is the definitive opinion on the matter. So, relax everybody. Just cause something may look like crap to you, it doesn't mean it is objectively, except, of course, for Bauhaus architecture which is total crap! Plain and simple.

At 7:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

hey there alligator. ew, that was bad, but stay with me. -- i love your blog - insightful, entertaining, and always a good discussion starter --
i completely agree about mystic river. i even thought the acting was overrought/over the top. tim robbins was phenomenal in "shawshank", but of course gets the oscar for this showy performance. ditto for sean penn. spicoli seems subtle, i think, in comparison. i didn't care for the twists in the movie and i thought there were holes in the plot and characterizations - although kevin bacon was solid as ever, and, of course, denied. why is the world wearing bifocals when i have 20/20?
thoughts on "crash" -- no, no, no. i can't stand the paul haggis third act. if i had stopped watching 90min in I may have felt a different way. but, it was like walking the plank to the end of that movie. ditto for, wait for it, "million dollar baby". i hate to write this, as it will tag me as a total non-feely person (i wimper at the end of titanic, i have feelings lol) that i couldn't help but laugh in the third act, uncomfortably. it was too much. too much to have an audience follow hilary's character to that point and then have it fall into, dare i say it, almost after school speciall/lifetime movie territory. at a certain point, as a writer for film an tv, maybe i am jaded. but that doesn't stop me from totally digging on an underrated movie like "proof of life", or thinking the script for "out of sight" was, wait for it, out of sight.

-- sascha

At 10:06 AM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

Ironically, I read the short stories that Million Dollar Baby was based on, and I thought it was formulaic boxing stuff. The third act twist I didn't get at all.

Still, I think they did a great job making the film work, from casting the hell out of it to a script that is well-written (and don't blame Haggis for the third act, it was already there).

It is on cable almost constantly now, and I have no real desire to sit down and watch chunks of it (particularly the third act), but watching it in a theater for the first time somehow worked for me.

Did it deserve best picture? Probably not. I think it benefitted because there just wasn't a big, kick-ass movie that came out last year.


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