(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?