Three Movies…and What We Can Learn from Them

(My apologies in advance…my internet service has been out to lunch for the last few days. I have been getting by with cell phone tethering but that has been spotty as well. It’s weather related and since we’re going to have more of the same for the next several days I may not be able to respond to comments, etc. I will do so as time and ability might allow. Thank you!)  

I am old enough to remember when Netflix was a DVD rental service. It actually still does that, though it has almost single-handedly transformed and popularized video-streaming. There is so much available that it is easy to acquire decision stress over what to watch. It is also quite easy to become addicted to the point where one lets other, more important things (such as writing) slide.

If you’re going to watch Netflix but you want to justify paying the time bandit instead of following your Muse you can actually learn quite a bit by judiciously choosing what you watch. I’m going to briefly discuss a couple of movies that you can find in Netflix’ nether regions that you either may not have heard of or which flitted across your attention due to not being your type of movie. I’ll also mention another that just hit theaters (remember theaters? Those big cavernous places that you stopped going to because half of the audience thinks they’re on Facebook, and can yell out everything they want?) yesterday. Without further ado:

Train to Busan: I quit watching Walking Dead when Rick’s son lost his eye and then pretty much gave up on the zombie horror sub-genre altogether. Someone recommended Train to Busan on Netflix as a zombie movie for people who were tired of zombies or hated the genre. My friend was right. Train to Busan, a South Korean horror film, hooks you in the first three minutes, giving you a hint of what is to come, stepping back and featuring a bit of human drama, and then putting you on the edge of your seat for an hour and a half or so. The set up is that an overworked hedge fund broker takes the morning off to accompany his young daughter (who is the cutest little kid who ever walked the face of the earth) on a high-speed train to visit her mother. The zombie apocalypse breaks out on the train and off we go. These zombies, by the way, aren’t the usual shambling dodos that can be taken out with a well-placed arrow. They are fleet of foot (they can somehow stumble and run like hell at the same time) and extremely aggressive. My favorite line of the film occurs when a passenger gets on the train intercom and says, “Conductor, we have a situation!” No kidding, Sherlock. The film itself features an excellent example of how to hint at a problem at the beginning of a work, let the problem percolate off-screen (or off the page), and then bring it back with a vengeance. It also is a reminder that light rail, buses, trains, boats, or planes are to be avoided at all costs. 

Hell or High Water: This contemporary western finally made it to Netflix and will cause you to trade in your bird box or whatever. A man gets out of prison to find that the family farm has gone into foreclosure during his absence. He and his brother embark on a scheme to rob the branches of the regional bank which holds the mortgage and then use the money to pay off the loan on the farm. It could have been a comedy — and yes, as an exercise you could rewrite it as a comedy — but it isn’t. Things don’t go exactly as planned and the brothers soon find that law enforcement is after them. Jeff Bridges, in what might be the performance of his life, plays a Texas Ranger who is just weeks away from retirement. His investigation into the robberies will certainly be his last case and he wants to retire on top by identifying the robbers and bringing them in dead or alive. There is plenty of moral ambiguity to be had all around, a few quirky characters, and an ending you won’t see coming. There’s a bit of action and plenty of drama, all of it perfectly placed and paced,  but you will want to take notes on the dialogue, which is first class from beginning to end and which is just as important for what is not said as for what is.

Serenity: I obtained days before its theatrical debut an advance copy of this new Matthew McConaughey vehicle without knowing anything about it. I assumed from the title that it was a film about sobriety, ala Clean and Sober, but contrare mon frere. It’s a noir tale with many of the elements of Body Heat but which, alas, goes adrift. McConaughey plays a charter boat skipper whose ex-wife shows up, telling tales of abuse, drunkenness, and cruelty at the hands of her extremely wealthy new husband. She wants McConaughey to kill the despicable cad, promising great rewards of the material and carnal kind. One can understand why McConaughey loses his wrestling match with temptation but that is the only element that truly works here. The story gets sidetracked needlessly and pointlessly, giving one the feeling that some of the scenes were inserted to make Serenity long enough for theatrical release. There is also a twist to the story that is ridiculous by any standard. The result is a textbook case of what occurs when 1) you try to grow a story with scenes that aren’t the equal of the existing product and 2) throw a shell game into the plot which makes the audience the patsy. The Coen Brothers (who have nothing to do with Serenity) do this occasionally with UFOs, for reasons best known only to themselves. It doesn’t work for them. The cleverness inserted into Serenity doesn’t work either, and the result is a work which robs you of two hours of your life which you will never get back. It’s a great example of a waste of elements and actors, a model of what not to do to your target audience.

My question for you: what film, television show/series, or whatever have you watched recently which provided one or more teachable moments — good or bad —for your writing? And how so?


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About Joe Hartlaub

Joe Hartlaub is an attorney, author, actor and book and music reviewer. Joe is a Fox News contributor on book publishing industry and publishing law and has participated on several panels dealing with book, film, and music business law. He lives with his family in Westerville, Ohio.

32 thoughts on “Three Movies…and What We Can Learn from Them

  1. Don’t get out to the movies much, as there is little of interest for the prices demanded…but over Christmas I took wife and daughter to the new Mary Poppins. We agreed it was a fine effort and hit all the buttons, but lacked the magic of the original.

    Lesson: Don’t seek to write a good copy of something that’s been done. Search for the spark of originality within you and let that light the way.

  2. I guess I would have to say Pearl Harbor was a movie I really wanted to like. (My personal stake in the movie was that there was a man in the Sunday School class I used to teach who was a Pearl Harbor survivor. He also had three other ships sunk beneath him.)

    But when I learned that the director of the movie said that we should not expect historical accuracy, my anticipation of the movie (we watch movies, not film, at our house) just sort of went away.

    Argh, there be spoilers here, in case you’ve missed the hundreds and hundreds of showings on cable.

    But I do have to admit admiring the storytelling angle of the movie–except for the cringe-worthy lines, such as the RAF Commander Tubbs heaping wild praise on Rafe: “Some people frown on the Yanks for not being in this war. I’d just like to say that if there are any more back home like you, God help anyone who goes to war with America.” Or, “Danny, Lets play some chicken with these Jap suckers.” So many to make you chew your popcorn a little harder.

    But in the end, for me, it was the lack of historical accuracy that made me, well, upset. (WARNING: never lecture a movie audience about the lack of historical accuracy. The theater manager said I could come back to his theater in 2020 if I brought my wife and somebody who could make me shut up.)

    But, here you go:

    The Doolittle Raiders did not orbit the Hornet until they could form up a squadron. They didn’t have enough fuel to do so.

    The Japanese did not attack on December 7th. They attacked on December 8th, Tokyo time. The Japanese Imperial Navy ships operated without exception on Tokyo time.

    The Japanese pilots put on rising sun hakamaki and drink saki before departing for their mission. That was a ritual for Kamikaze pilots flying their last desperate missions some three years later. (Did you know that in American theaters, if you stand on your seat and yell “No! No! Take ’em off! They didn’t wear those on December Seventh!” that people will actually tackle you and bum rush you out of the theater. Well, the theater I was in.)

    The first view of Pearl Harbor from the Japanese air fleet perspective showed the Pearl Harbor memorial.

    I don’t know about the battle in which the Mongols invaded Vienna, but I do know about the attack on Pearl Harbor. I was so disappointed. Well, I got even with them. I asked for a second, free box of popcorn.

    They said, sure, when I can come back to the theater in 2020.

    • And the moral of this story is not to expect accuracy from Hollywood, and you’ll be a much happier viewer. Try the alternate dimension idea. This is Pearl Harbor in another dimension where things did happen like that. At least you are not a geeksplaner (geek-explainer) who is telling his buddies very loudly how the superhero movie you are watching is different or accurate according to its comics source. Those guys should be smothered in their own popcorn.

      • Marilynn, you’re right — the films are another interpretation of the fictional source material, bought and paid for — which is why I don’t watch the superhero movies. I bought the comics when they were first published and don’t need or want the stories reinterpreted. I like to tell folks that it took film technology fifty years to catch up with Stan Lee’s, Jack Kirby’s, and Steve Ditko’s imaginations. That said, a lot of the folks who have paid the price of admission haven’t read the original and don’t need an interpretation from the peanut gallery. Thanks for the reminder.

    • I can understand a certain amount of what they call dramatic license, Jim, but I also think it’s important to get the basics accurate, something which isn’t often done, unfortunately. Thanks for pointing out the bloopers, if you will, in Pearl Harbor. I will be chuckling over the Pearl Harbor Memorial shot for the next few days.

    • After calling for historical accuracy, I was historically inaccurate. It wasn’t the Pearl Harbor Memorial in the shot. It was the U.S.S. Arizona memorial in the shot.

      I apologize.

  3. Joe, I hope you get your internet service reestablished, so you don’t get too addicted to Netflix.

    The Art of the Steal – 2013 – Kurt Russel and Matt Dillon. The movie gives a peak into the art theft world, and it had a good twist at the end. And even better, the movie went back and showed the viewer how the twist was set up. It was a lesson for me in inserting red herrings and misdirection.

    • Thanks, Steve. We aren’t supposed to get service back until sometime Sunday. It wasn’t working at the local Timmy Ho-Hos either (that’s Tim Horton’s, for you poor souls that don’t have one near you) so I am using the twenty-first century equivalent of two tin cans and a string. No worries about Netflix addiction…I still have DVDs and managed to find a couple of books, legal pads, and fountain pens to keep me occupied. And thanks for the recommendation of The Art of the Steal, which I have added to my list. Stay warm!

  4. We just saw 213. It’s a serial killer thriller that trips over the same tired cliches. Drunk detective/profiler who just returned to the job after a mental breakdown. The killer who sent him down the rabbit hole is back. But the crime scenes were so inventive and creepy, it held my interest, even though I guessed who the killer was within 5 minutes.
    Cool twist in the end, though.

    What we can learn from this movie … We better put one helluva tornado spin on a cliche if we choose to include it.

    • Sue, i’ll have to check that out. It sounds interesting and I’ve seen it on a few recommended lists. Your recommendation cements the deal. I agree with your spin conclusion, as well. Thanks!

  5. Joe –
    I share your appreciation of “Hell or High Water” and Jeff Bridges standout performance. Compelling characters brought to life by great acting elevated this film for me.
    I’m currently watching Michael Connelly’s Bosch series and it, as do his books, display the work of a master. Great learning potential!
    Neat post – thank you.

    • Thank you, Tom. I started watching Bosch reluctantly, expecting to be disappointed, but was almost immediately sucked into the characters and story interpretations. Fantastic job! Enjoy.

  6. I have been totally hooked on Longmire, a Netflix contemporary western set in Wyoming for six seasons. I am up all hours to see what Sheriff Walt Longmire, his daughter, Cady, his deputy, Vic Moretti, and his Native American friend, Henry, played by Lou Diamond Philips (to mention a few) get themselves into, and it’s plenty. Everything from the requisite shooting to the arrival of the Irish mob on the “res.” Can’t get enough of it, even though some of it is not believable and a bit cheesy. I love the different story lines woven throughout, the facial expressions, the characters, the setting–and, especially, the flawed, wonderful Walt.

    • I kept up with the series until it went off cable. (I can afford books, or I can afford all those streaming services. I chose books.) Really excellent. The quality of the world and character building shows its roots as a book series by Craig Johnson. It’s a rare series or movie that has a sense of thought behind its world and characters that doesn’t come from another source.

    • Nancy, Longmire has something for everyone and certainly deserved a longer run. Thanks for the reminder. Fortunately, the novels on which the show is based continue under the steady hand of Craig Johnson.
      An aside…since you mentioned him…I never cared much for Lou Diamond Phillips until Longmire. He’s just terrific in the show.

      • At a traffic light about a year ago, I saw a political campaign bumper sticker:
        Longmire for Sheriff
        Absaroka County
        That was great.

  7. My most recent dud was “Close” on Netflix. Logline: When attackers target the heiress she’s protecting, battle-hardened bodyguard Sam [Noomi Rapace] scrambles to save her client — and teach her how to fight back.

    I was really hoping for a good story, especially since it’s based on the *real* bodyguard for JK Rowling, and I love watching Rapace in just about everything (she’s the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in the Swedish trilogy). And it started off with a bang. But it turns into a mess with a disappointing ending. My main issue is with the depth of the characterizations, or lack thereof. The protagonist (ass-kicking Sam) has good motivations and range. But the secondary characters don’t (for me). And there are illogical and unexplained plot holes a plenty.

    Lessons for me: (1) really understand my characters’ inner and external goals, and (2) hit my plot points and make sure they make sense in the full story arc.

    • Harald, you summed Close up perfectly and your lessons are first rate. Thanks! I was really disappointed in it as well.

    • Harald, you summed Close up perfectly and your lessons are first rate. Thanks! I was really disappointed in Close as well. It didn’t work for the exact reasons that you mentioned.

  8. I have watched the movie Forrest Gump several times in the past and again recently.
    This last showing I realized Forrest Gump was the same person, in the beginning, middle, and ending. It was the other characters that had issues that kept the moving going.

    • Excellent point, Mary. Thanks. It’s something that one doesn’t notice immediately because the film moves so smoothly. I hope the same care is shown with the sequel.

  9. A recent movie that didn’t work for me was “Dunkirk.” (Despite fact it was critical success and got Oscar nods).

    I love almost all WWI or WWII movies so I went in with high expectations. Was bored stiff. Although beautifully firmed, it lacked an emotional heart. I think this was because it was told through the POVs of several soldiers, a classic ensemble cast, it lacked focus among characters who seemed to all look and talk alike. I kept thinking of why Saving Private Ryan worked when this one didn’t — because although Ryan interwove many soldiers’s stories, it had an emotional core via the Tom Hanks character. Dunkirk lacks this, for me.

    The most interesting thing in the movie was the civilian sailor Dawson and his son Peter who disobey the Navy’s order to commandeer civilian boats for the massive rescue and set out on their own. Their story, coming late in the movie, is far more compelling, imho, because it brings the huge drama down to human scale.

    Which is a great lesson for any writer of historical fiction, I think. Find the specific human drama within the grand historic universal one.

  10. Thanks, Joe for the list of movies to see on Netflix. I’ve been watching the TV series “Young Sheldon” and it’s great with good reason. The writing and acting are tops and so it’s hilarious. There’s a film that’s supposed to come on Netflix made from the book “Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance. I’m reading the book at present. The film should be good as it’s being directed by Ron Howard. 🙂 — Suzanne

  11. Suzanne, thanks for the “Young Sheldon” recommendation and particularly for the news about “Hillbilly Elegy.” Can’t wait!

  12. My husband and I just watched Out of the Past with Robert Mitchem, Kirk Douglas, and Jane Greer on TCM. Love the dialogue between Mitchem and Douglas throughout the movie. Great twists in the plot, too. What really caught my attention— Jane Greer’s reaction to being slapped by Kirk Douglas. It’s an unanticipated moment. I actually jumped when he hit her. Jane Greer’s reaction was unlike any actress I’ve ever seen. Maybe no one told her she would be slapped in the scene. Or maybe Douglas really slapped her. Anyway, she flinched, actually rocked sideways a little, her eyes widened in fear. It was perfect.

    • Thank you, Claire. Robert Mitchum is one of my favorites but I was unfamiliar with Out of the Past until now. I loved your description of that scene. I’ll definitely check the film out. James M. Cain co-wrote the screenplay which is always a plus…

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