Category: movies

Lessons From HELL OR HIGH WATER

2016’s HELL OR HIGH WATER, written by Taylor Sheridan and directed by David Mackenzie, is damn near a perfect film. Beautifully directed, wonderfully acted, and expertly written, the movie exemplifies many of the aspects of storytelling that I think elevates the artform.

Begin in Media Res

If you seek out enough writing advice you’ll start to notice the same things being said over and over, but interpreted differently every time. The most egregious of these, in my opinion, is to start with action. Lots of writers interpret this advice as meaning to start with a fight scene, or someone being chased, and sometimes that works. But what the advice is really saying, and what HELL OR HIGH WATER does, is starts in media res. Meaning, we start with the story already in motion.

In this case, that means we’re starting with a bank robbery. Not the planning for the robbery. Not Toby picking Tanner up from his latest stint in jail and asking him for help. We learn the why and how of the robbery over the course of the film, but to begin we’re thrust into the most important moment of these characters’ lives, and the exact moment that puts the story in motion.

Begin in media res.

Building Empathy Through Relationships and Balancing Tone

Between the desperation of the characters, the actions they take out of that desperation, and the overall message of the film, it could have been bleak. We could have watched as one desperate father and his borderline sociopathic, irreparably damaged brother hurt people while robbing banks and being chased by a sad, nearly retired Texas Ranger with no hope for his future.

Instead, we get something else. Something that balances that heaviness with moments of levity that connects the audience to the characters by relating the characters to one another. One of the things that surprised me most on my re-watch (I initially saw it when it was first released four years ago) is how funny the film can be. Ben Foster’s character, Tanner, is especially charismatic. The way he ribs his younger brother and leans into the worst aspects of his personality to defect from the awfulness of his actions becomes endearing. This scene, for example:

The scene gets intense and violent, all because Tanner only knows how to escalate a situation. If you look closely at the scene, Tanner is prepared to shoot the kid before Toby intervenes. When Toby opens the door, you can see the gun at Tanner’s side. Despite the seriousness of the situation, he immediately diffuses his brother’s anger by making fun of him for forgetting to keep someone’s gun away from them earlier in the movie (“You remembered the gun! You’re getting old hat at this.”) and then busts his balls for buying Mr. Pibb instead of Dr. Pepper.

By seeing that aspect of their relationship, by understanding how Toby could so easily be swayed by Tanner’s humor, we’re won over, too.

Simplicity of Story in Service of Theme

The film’s story isn’t complex. There are essentially three main characters, and on major supporting character. There are no twists or turns. Everything happens as it does, in the order it does, and the consequences play out as they will. Motivations and rationalizations are clearly explained. The story is what it is, no unnecessary bells or whistles.

This simplicity streamlines the story, keeping the focus tight on the characters and the themes, and allowing the audience to be swept up into the journey. The themes of family, land, racism, and economic disparity are all complex, needing engagement from the audience to think on these things after the film. Keeping the story simple, straightforward, challenging the audience in a different way than a Chris Nolan film might (for example), allows for the focus to be on what’s most important. If the film had double-crosses, or was told in non-chronological order, that would be lost.

Social Commentary Done Right

HELL OR HIGH WATER has a very clear point of view. Banks and the already-wealthy are the real thieves in our society. Multiple characters point this out when discussing the morality of the robberies, but it’s really summed up with a short monologue by Toby near the end of the film:

Monologue starts around the 2:15 mark.

After spending the entire movie in poor, dying towns with boarded up buildings and billboards for debt relief dotting the land, Toby simply and eloquently sums it up: being poor is a disease. One he didn’t want to pass on to his children.

As I said, the film has a clear point of view. But it allows the audience to come around to that point of view on their own, only hammering the point home with this final scene. By spending time in those dying towns, watching the characters act out of desperation, we’ve already come to understand their plight. Toby’s vocalizing it doesn’t change that, he only reinforces it.

I think that’s how it should be done. Social commentary can easily be a turn-off for audiences if they’re beat over the head with it. Doing it subtly, with characters we understand and like, might make it stick.

1917 and Character Development

Um… I had to steal this from an image search. So attribution is to DuckDuckGo. Thanks DuckDuckGo!

About a quarter of the way through Sam Mendes’s 1917, after almost being killed by a trap left by the Germans, the two soldiers assigned to a perilous mission stumble on a small yard filled with cherry trees. As they walk through the yard, taking a moment to take in the damage to the trees, Lance Corporal Blake tells his comrade, Lance Corporal Shofield, about the cherry trees his family kept at his home. Later in the movie, cherry trees play a significant metaphorical role.

However, in the moment I found myself thinking how weird it felt to be listening to this story at this point in the film. It’s hard to explain why, because on its face there’s nothing wrong with how the scene played out. It’s clear in the movie that cherry trees weren’t uncommon in that area, so them stumbling on a small yard filled with them wasn’t too coincidental or anything. When spending time with a single person, as Blake and Shofield were doing, it doesn’t take a huge prompt to discuss your history or reflect, especially in circumstances such as war. Cherry trees even play a significant role later in the film, adding a later importance to the film.

All of that is fine, but in the moment I found myself wondering what it was supposed to tell me about Blake’s character. While the information did serve the movie, I didn’t see the way in which it served the character. At that point in the film it was just exposition.

While some of the way character development was handled was a result of the chosen style–one single shot for the entire film–I wondered what other ways the film could have given us information about the characters in a way that served them fully, without coming across as forced. From the beginning of the film it’s clear that Blake is more impulsive, while Shofield is cautious, world-weary. But this dynamic isn’t really explored, such as when they’re trying to get through no man’s land and Blake is hurrying ahead. Instead of exploring the push and pull between their approaches to the way (and their motivations for the mission), the scene instead is literally us watching them cross the field until they reach the next checkpoint. We could have seen Shofield physically hold Blake back at some point, explaining to him that they need to remember their training or they’ll die. Something like that to get us deeper into their personalities.

Another missed opportunity, in my opinion, was Shofield’s reveal at the end. This is a slight SPOILER, so reader beware going into the next paragraph.

Early in the film, we see Shofield open a metal case, check to make sure something is inside, and then return it to his inside pocket. We’re not shown what’s in the case until the last shot of the film, when it’s revealed to be a picture of his wife and child. Now, why wouldn’t this reveal happen as early as possible in order for the audience to relate to Shofield? Perhaps I’m missing something, but I couldn’t understand the significance of the unveiling then, as opposed to earlier.

There are lots of little moments throughout the film that felt like they could have done more to reveal character or connect us with the characters. And it got me thinking, what makes a good, productive backstory reveal?

As I mentioned above, it’s because, ideally, the backstory serves character and story both. But, in a pinch where only one can be fleshed out or pushed forward, it should be the character. The story has other machinations to move forward.

And that’s where 1917 disappointed me. I never felt attached to the characters, never felt like I knew what their inner lives might be like. And so I was never fully invested in the film, which meant I spent time wondering why they were talking about cherry trees instead of worrying what they would find next.

The Art of Theft

Recently I’ve decided to check out the miniseries The Story of Film: An Odyssey. You know, because I’m into movies and shit. I’m only a few episodes in, but the third episode (about early world cinema) got me thinking about something that is talked about pretty consistently in writing: cribbing from others.

I don’t mean it in exactly the way most “writing gurus” mean it. When they say it, they mean to actively write in someone else’s voice and steal someone else’s characters and premises in order to learn how to create your own. That’s fine. I still find myself writing like Ray Bradbury, just not nearly as well (that motherfucker could write, is my point).

What I mean is stealing flourishes, visuals, little details that communicate an idea so perfectly you can’t think of another way to do it. Or, to steal because it inspires you.

One could argue that film (or any art, really, but especially film) is nothing but the collaboration of millions of people over the past 120 years or so. They borrow one another’s ideas, techniques, visuals, and use those to tell different stories. Today you need look no further than Tarantino or the Coen Brothers to find filmmakers that built their careers on being referential.

But there’s an art to it. An art they understand and an art that other filmmakers and writers (say… JJ Abrams when he made Super 8) don’t. To just steal, to make a reference that makes people go, “I recognize that!” doesn’t do anything for a story as a whole. What makes a reference, or a theft of an idea, resonate is how that reference or theft is used to further your own story. Tarantino’s movies are loose collections of references to other films, but they still tell his stories with his characters. He still writes crackling dialogue and exciting plots. He doesn’t just do a deep focus with a window in the background and ask if you remember how great that shot was in Citizen Kane because he remembers too. That’s useless. His movies stand on their own because he hasn’t allowed himself to become his influences.

One of my favorite sequences in any movie is in Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, oddly enough, when they find themselves stuck in Hell. This is a bit of a cheat because Bill and Ted is clearly a spoof, and spoof’s are easier to talk about when discussing references, but I think it works. Anyway, Hell is clearly influenced by German Expressionism and it absolutely works for that sequence. It adds to the feel of the film and it furthers the story and that’s partially because we, even subconsciously, recognize the significance of the reference. The heavy-lifting has already been done by antiquity so the film could focus on its other priorities, like putting Bill and Ted in situations that would further them from their goals but still make us laugh.

Theft can be an awesome thing if done right. Like Bill and Ted a proper reference can act as a bridge of information for an audience that may not understand what’s immediately going on. But a reference without a purpose actively hurts a story and is best avoided.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 and the State of the Movies

I saw How to Train Your Dragon 2 last week and it left me with a lot of thoughts about movies. For one, let me just state this outright: I think this is the best movie I’ve seen so far this year. If not the best, it’s my favorite. Inside Llewyn Davis was too good to ignore in that conversation, but that was also released last year. I just didn’t see it until this year. Captain America: The Winter Soldier was good, but not as good as Dragon. I loved Mr. Peabody and Sherman, too, but it doesn’t compare favorably to Dragon. The Lego Movie is a lock to be nominated come Oscar season next year, but even that I’d have a hard time saying was better or more interesting than Dragon.

The one thing I can say with assurance, and I think this speaks to the current state of movies as a whole, is that animated films have (on the whole) been much better than live-action films recently. I could write several posts breaking down why this might be true (visuals, breadth of story, simplicity, etc.) but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that animated films, or kids’ films if you’re the type to make that distinction, have taken greater risks and told better stories recently than the majority of movies aimed at young adults or adults.

It’s hard to say why that is. There are a lot of variables and Pixar’s influence on the way animated stories are told is a big part of it. There are also arguments to be made that because there are a much lower number of animated films being released, the sample size is too small to compare to live-action films.

What I can do is talk about why How to Train Your Dragon 2 is so good.

Hiccup: He’s a great hero, not least because he straddles the line between relatability and wish-fulfillment so well. He’s flawed in obvious ways (his small stature, his stubborness, his nervousness, his peg-leg) but is still ultra-competent. He tells the audience that just because you’re weak in some areas, that doesn’t mean your strengths can’t allow you to become more than the sum of your parts. He invents gadgets to help him become more formidable. He relies on bravery to make decisions and do things no one else is willing to.

But most importantly, he does the right thing. What stuck out to me most while watching Dragon is that Hiccup’s last resort is violence, and even then he avoids it as much as possible. This is another way that he is an outcast to his own people, but because he is so sure in his convictions he eventually learns their respect and converts them to his way of thinking anyway.

Relationships: The entire series is built on the relationships between several sets of characters. Hiccup and Toothless (his dragon) take center-stage, as their relationship is the embodiment of many of the themes of the story. But Hiccup also has fun, caring relationships with most of the other characters. His girlfriend, Astrid. His Father, Stoic. Other characters that it would ruin the story to reveal. And the supporting characters have fun to watch relationships, as well. The twins, Ruffnut and Tuffnut. Stoic and his best friend, Gobber. Gobber’s relationships with the dragons and the children on the island. The relationships serve the story and make you care about what’s happening.

Stakes: One of the themes of the film is expanding your horizons and accepting change. We like Berk and the people on it, so to watch it deal with negative outside influences is difficult to watch. But those stakes are nothing compared to the personal stakes the film raises. At the end of Act 2 there is a moment where absolutely everything seems lost. And you feel it because of the way the film has immersed you in its world and its characters.

Humor: One of the things I love most about animated film is the way they balance humor and drama. Dragon does a great job of this, too. I’ve found that I respond to dramatic situations more if you can make me laugh beforehand (or sometimes during). The jokes in Dragon are mostly funny and do a good job of either breaking tension, or shading character. In short, its used in such a way that doesn’t distract from the drama of the proceedings, but instead adds to it by making the audience enjoy spending time with these characters and situations.

Visuals: This film is gorgeous. The cinematography of the characters riding their dragons, the inventiveness of the way they utilize them, is awesome. The film is expansive but never loses its sense of geography or allows two settings to overlap. Everything about the world of dragons, from the setting to the designs of the dragons themselves, is functional and beautiful.

Themes and Moral Center: As I’ve mentioned more than once, through Hiccup and the themes of the film there are good lessons to be learned by children. Hiccup never resorts to violence, preferring instead to talk to people and show them why they are misinformed. We are taught that just because we don’t understand something, that doesn’t mean it’s bad or dangerous. Just that it’s different. But what sticks out to me most, especially considering the way I approach writing, is its optimism. Hiccup believes in the good in all things and while the story veers into dark, uncompromising places, it still rewards him in the end for his beliefs. With this film it’s difficult to say he’s in the right. His unwavering belief in the good of others and his need to try non-violent tactics before resorting to warfare leads to dire situations. But in the end he pulls through and learns some valuable lessons along the way.

Look, I know animated films may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But right now they’re, to me, the more interesting offerings in the cinema. How to Train Your Dragon 2 isn’t a perfect film and I’m sure better ones will be released, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a more gratifying experience in the theater this summer.

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