August 12, 2011

Talk is Not Plot

“I don’t care about plot.” – Rex Pickett, author of Sideways

I know, I know… what a shocker that the author of Sideways doesn’t care about plot.  Now, I haven’t read the novel so I shouldn’t make blanket statements about its lack of plot, but the movie, written not by Pickett, isn’t the most engaging story to grace the screen in the last decade, and the screenwriters actually added plot to Pickett’s novel.

In her 2008 book “And the Best Screenplay Goes to…”, Linda Seger interviews Rex Pickett as well as the screenwriters who adapted Sideways for the screen.  Furthering his argument against plot, Pickett goes on to say, “…three-dimensional characters are the pillars of any good film story, dialogue is the glue, and the story is only the body of the vehicle, not the engine.”

While I fully agree that characters drive the story, there has to be a story present for the characters to drive.  Stage plays can get away with a couple hours of talking, but motion pictures are completely dependent on action.  Characters need to do things, not just say things.

Who am I to question the plot of Sideways?  After all, it won the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay in 2005 and was nominated for Best Picture.  Its IMDb cumulative user rating is 7.8/10.  The movie contributed to higher wine sales and a spike in tourism to the Santa Ynez Valley.  Gross box office receipts topped $70 million on a budget estimated to be $12 million.

There is no question that Sideways achieved the rare feet of critical, audience, and financial acclaim – a huge accomplishment for a movie based on a novel that was rejected by no less than 15 publishers.

But I’m going to conclude that Sideways is an exception, not a rule to try to emulate.  For every Sideways there are hundreds of talking-head plotless drivel-flicks without Virginia Madsen, Thomas Haden Church and Paul Giamatti carrying the weight.

I don’t hate Sideways, but I don’t like it.  And I’m certainly not going to try to write anything like it.  Give me movies about people doing things, not just saying things.  And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

August 10, 2011

What If...

Perhaps the fastest growing classification of movies, faith-based films have a tendency to sacrifice production value for message. While movies like Facing the Giants and Fireproof have solid messages, they lack in the aesthetic polish audiences get from most Hollywood releases.

With "What If...”, director Dallas Jenkins manages to give audiences an aesthetically beautiful film with wonderful performances on both sides of the camera. The movie feels like a mid-budget Hollywood release, a remarkable feat considering the low budget and tight shooting schedule. Kevin Sorbo has a great presence throughout, and Kristy Swanson, still beautiful as ever, shows off her dramatic chops. And John Ratzenberger's performance is angelic, in a good-old-boy way.

Still, great direction and performances don't make a great movie unless the story matches. Thankfully, the story of "What If...", albeit somewhat recycled, is outstanding. Living a life of luxury and power, Ben Walker (Sorbo) is chosen by God to receive a glimpse of what his life could have been had he made a different decision 15 years earlier. The bulk of the movie is spent in Ben's alternate reality where he learns the true riches of life.

"What If..." doesn't hide the fact that it's a Christian movie. Still, it doesn't hurl religion at the audience with reckless abandon. In other words, it's a movie that even non-Christians can and should enjoy. Without sex, violence, or language concerns, it's perfectly suited for all ages.

Raising the bar for faith-based films, "What If..." is hopefully the start to higher standards for movies delivering messages of the Highest Standard.

I’ve posted the above review with slight variations to Amazon, iTunes, IMDb, and my Examiner column.  I still feel strongly that What If… is one of the best explicitly Christian movies I’ve seen.  The production quality, acting, direction, and screenwriting are what I wish the Sherwood pictures were.  If you saw Fireproof and found yourself embarrassed by the stilted dialogue, wooden performances, and awkward didactic redundancy, give What If… a look and take pride that Christian movies can look like Hollywood and still feel like Sunday morning.