Sunday, February 9, 2014

When A Plot Is Not the Problem

As you dear readers know, I like analyzing structures. I like to discover how the bits and bobs fit together, find symmetries and rhymes, and watch parts overlap, disappear, and reemerge. In the world of film this task is mostly the work of the writer, and today in film this is the goal most often left unfulfilled. Occasionally, though, a movie will sport a splendid script and be let down by other elements. It's easy to think that a solid plot can anchor any movie, and to a good degree it can, but it's also instructive to see just how much other work is needed to bring structure to life. Two films illustrate the point.

Iron Man 3
Written & Directed by Shane Black. 2013.

If you summarize the plot, Iron Man 3 sounds phenomenal. First, we have the Tony-Pepper plot. After battling the interstellar guests during the events of The Avengers, Tony Stark's mechanical mind is rejecting the variables he can't compute. He's stressed and endures panic attacks up to the point of needing to distract himself by constructing endless variations of his Iron Man suits. He alienates Pepper, whose obvious love he'll need to accept while he rejects his obsession with the alien attack in New York.

Second, we have the plot of political intrigue in which The Mandarin, an America-hating terrorist, begins claiming credit for bombings against American targets. The attacks escalate until eventually both Iron Man and Iron Patriot, one of Stark's suits the government ripped off and re-branded, are on the job. On the one hand Tony wants to swear off Iron Man for Pepper, and on the other hand he wants revenge against The Mandarin for putting his trusted manservant, Happy Hogan, in a coma.

Third, Tony has a new entrepreneurial rival in the form of Aldrich Killian, a scientist whom Tony once casually scorned and who now has developed a technology, Extremis, to augment and repair the human body.

The script interweaves these three elements with one clever twist: Extremis is unstable, with patients exploding, yes exploding, around the world. What to do? Killian uses the character of The Mandarin as a front to claim the explosions as terrorist attacks and then kidnaps Pepper to extort Tony into using his genius to perfect Extremis.

Now that's pretty slick, but Killian and The Mandarin are actually interesting foils for Tony Stark. Like Tony, Killian is a man of extraordinary intelligence. He's idealistic and passionate, yet as his project fails and he fails legitimately to acquire help, he turns to vanity and crime to support his goals. Killian's character was formed when Tony abandoned him early in his career and the spurned doctor retreated to the shadows to pull strings in anonymity. The crucible of Tony's character, in contrast, was that cave in Pakistan where a stranger saved his life and Iron Man was born. After that, Tony didn't retreat tot he shadows but publicly took control of his company and publicly became Iron Man.

Furthermore, The Mandarin is a caricature of Tony. As Iron man Stark is the brash, rich, ingenious American and The Mandarin, like Whiplash before him, is Tony's reflection, not opposite, and intended reckoning.

So what's wrong with Iron Man 3? Another critical element too often overlooked by critics, filmgoers, and anyone not in the middle of directing a movie: the setting. The effect is that all the characters are all over the place, destroying any possibility for interaction and development. Happy is in a coma, Tony's in the midwest, Pepper is kidnapped who know's where, The Mandarin is in Florida, Killian is out and about, Jarvis is out of commission for half the movie, and Rhodie is flying around the world looking for The Mandarin.

The ending could have rehabilitated the movie if the characters had smoothly converged, but they do so with confusion instead of clarity. Rhodie and Tony converge on The Mandarin, but then he's a fake and Pepper is somewhere else and then the president is kidnapped from Air Force One by Iron Patriot in which isn't Rhodie but Killian's man and then Tony tries to stop him but he's not actually in the suit, and one suit is back in the midwest and then some suits come from back in California and then everyone's together at some random shipping dock in Florida. Got that?

Writer-Director Shane Black surely realized things got frayed and such explains the coda of narration he gave Tony for the end of the movie. Tony doesn't say anything that's not implicit, but those ideas doesn't feel implicit because we've forgotten who and where everyone is and what they're doing. The lack of attention to setting turned a perfectly good script into what looks and feels like a mess.

Oz The Great and Powerful. 
Directed by Sam Raimi. 2013.

Boy everyone hated this movie, didn't they? The plot seems awfully good though, at least as far as Oz is concerned. Oz is a semi-talented fraud in our world, but when he is transported to the Land of Oz he must learn to put those same skills toward a noble purpose. In our world he acts for himself, but he must learn to save the Emerald city for its people.  In our world he had contempt for average people, in Oz he had to learn about them and respect them if he is to learn and use their virtues to defeat the witches. He must be the same man doing the same things, but with a different purpose, and in doing so become a new man. Works for me.

Now a lot of people had a lot of problems with the rest of the movie. They blame James Franco, the acting, the special effects, James Franco, the silliness, the lack of wonder, and James Franco. Yes, all of those elements were a little flat. The problem, though, is that Oz doesn't hit its beats. You know, beats: those notes which typify a scene. Arrivals have to feel like arrivals, meetings like meetings, departures departures, battles battles and so forth. Each scene has to feel like a type of scene and clearly move you along. No beats means no flow and a drippy flow equals a soupy movie. How can a ridiculous and cheap movie like Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters work? It hits its beats. Beats make your movie feel like something going somewhere.

The lack of beats in Oz means that the whole movie up until the final battle, which is expertly handled, feels like a slog. So what beats are missing? The arrival at the Emerald City, the departure from the Emerald City, and the adding of characters to the motley crew. These things happen, but they don't feel right, they don't feel important, and they don't feel like they move us forward because we're not quite persuaded that they do. Sometimes the beat is missed because of acting, sometimes because of direction, but it happens too often here.

Add to that sluggishness the fact that all of Oz's character development occurs at the end, and the movie feels empty even though it has a lot going for it.

Of course Sam Raimi knows movies and knows how to hit his beats. What happened? I think he modeled his Oz after the 1939 classic, but realized, correctly, that campy acting and whimsical musical numbers would not appeal to a modern audience. So out went the whimsy, but nothing filled its place, and it's the music that kept the original together. What keeps today's Oz together? Only the plot, which is not quite enough.

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