Posted on July 9, 2014


I spent several weeks dealing with some digestive issues, and then getting back into the swing of things at work. As a result, I missed writing some blog posts.

On the plus side, though, I watched some movies!

Action v. Drama

As you’ve probably noticed from other review this year, my taste in movies is changing. I still enjoy a good action movie, but the good ones are few and far between. I prefer thrillers, drama, and indie films these days.

The basics of all story is that a character (which can be a group of people), in a context, has a conflict. That conflict should be between the character’s greatest fear and the character’s greatest desire.


The character tries to resolve the conflict, and fails but learns something. The consequences increase. The character tries a second time to resolve the conflict, fails again, but learns something new. The consequences increase again. The character tries a third time to resolve the conflict, and succeeds based logically on what came before. Together, those three attempts form the plot of the story.

To me, an action movie is about doing things, so it is very plot heavy. Most action movies these days focus on stunts, spectacle, and CGI (Michael Bay, I’m looking at you). Despite all their frenzied attempts to be exciting, they are boring. They are boring because we know the hero is in no significant danger.

We, as writers, need to write suspense scenes that have action in them. What will the protagonist sacrifice to overcome an obstacle? Which goal will the protagonist prioritize? Will the protagonist accomplish more than one goal?


I don’t want to break it down to seem mechanical and rote, but we need to push beyond frenetic chase scenes and fights, and write stories that matter.

Thrillers, on the other hand, are more character-focused. There is still plot, of course, but a thriller is about building and maintaining tension. I found a very good article online about what the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, had to say on the matter. When you have time, read it.

In a thriller, our point of view is often limited. We do not know everything that is happening when it happens. We know what the consequences are for our protagonist, and the actions the protagonist takes reveal character.

The most effective thrillers are about our compassion for the protagonist, or for the victims of the antagonist, or both. They are emotional.


You can have a thrilling action movie, when the writer handles suspense well.

Dramas are less about what happens than they are about how and why things happen. They can have action. They can have suspense. What they must have is a solid emotional conflict that we can understand and, hopefully, sympathise with. Where action movies are about external changes (arresting a criminal, disarming a bomb, preventing a terrorist attack), dramas tend to be about internal changes (falling in love, accepting changes, dealing with loss).

That said, let’s talk about some specific movies.

Get Low (2009)


This period drama is about a backcountry hermit, Felix Bush (Robert Duvall), who harbors a guilty secret. Realizing that he will die soon, he organizes a funeral party with the help of the town funeral parlor (staffed by Bill Murray and Lucas Black). Initially, Felix wants everyone with a story to tell about him to come and tell that story. As his plans draw an old flame (played by Sissy Spacek) into the story, Felix reveals that he wants an audience to hear the truth about a tragedy from his past.

I found this movie unexpected, unpredictable, and full of warmth, humor, and humanity. Duvall’s performance of a man who despises himself and can’t understand why anyone would desire his company rings true and honest all the way through.

I’ve been watching Lucas Black since he was a boy on American Gothic. He’s grown into a fine young actor and easily holds his own in scenes with Duvall, Murray, Gerald McRaney, and Bill Cobbs.

Everything Must Go (2010)


Nick Halsey (Will Ferrell) is an alcoholic. He relapses during a business trip, and the relapse causes him to lose his job. He comes home to find his wife gone, the house locked up, and his belongings on the lawn. So he decides to live on his front lawn, in full view of the neighborhood.

His AA sponsor (Michael Pena) is a police detective, and he comes up with the idea that if Nick has a yard sale, the city has to leave him alone for three days. A neighborhood boy, Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace) hangs out with Nick, and winds up being the mastermind behind the sale – even though Nick, initially, doesn’t want to sell anything.

This is movie is about accepting change, letting go of the past, and moving forward. Ferrell is very successful in taking us on Nick’s emotional journey as he learns what really goes on in his neighborhood, and in his life.

In the end, we don’t know what will happen to Nick. We only know that he’s not stuck in his rut anymore.

Hesher (2010)


Joseph Gordon Levitt is one of my favorite young actors (right up there with Paul Dano, about whom I’ve said a great deal in past columns).

This movie begins with a chase, as TJ (Devin Brochu) tries to keep up with a tow truck taking away the car in which TJ’s mother died. TJ and his dad (Rainn Wilson) live with TJ’s grandmother (Piper Laurie) while they struggle with their grief.

TJ does not want to lose the car, because it’s his last connection with his mother. His grandmother is elderly and a little batty, mostly because of her cancer meds. His dad is wallowing in sorrow, heavily medicated and leaving the couch only to go to support groups. TJ feels abandoned. Even the woman (Natalie Portman) who defends him from a bully is unattainable.

Then TJ throws a rock through a window in a housing construction project, attracting the attention of the security guards and ruining Hesher’s squat. Hesher (Joseph Gordon Levitt) is a stoner punk drifter with a keen sense for the vulnerabilities of others. He forces himself into TJ’s life, taking up residence in the family’s garage.

Initially, Hesher is a furious, menacing, presence. Gradually, though, he finds the family he never had. Grandma accepts him, and he warms to her.

This is a movie about people failing to communicate. TJ doesn’t know how to navigate the adult world. Hesher has limited communication tools. Dad is too grief-stricken to communicate. Grandma attempts to connect, but only Hesher recognizes the value of her contributions.

In the end, Hesher gives a blistering diatribe about seeing past loss to what you still have, and forces each character to wake up.

This movie has some shock value to it, with plenty of swearing, drinking, and smoking. There’s some sex and drug use, and a fair amount of violence. If those things bother you, see one of the other movies in this article.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011)


The cast of this movie (Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton, Maggie Smith, Ronald Pickup, and Celia Imrie) were enough to make us want to watch it.

We’re glad that we did.

In case you missed the hype, this is about a young man, Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel), who decides to outsource old age to his home country, India. Several elderly Britons decide to spend their retirement in India, where their money can go further. Culture shock sets in, of course, and draws truth from their characters.

Parts of the movie are predictable, but others are surprising and the performances are wonderful to watch.

Win Win (2011)

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Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is a struggling lawyer. His passion is coaching the high school wrestling team, which he does as an unpaid volunteer. One day he takes responsibility for Leo Poplar (Burt Young), but instead of using Leo’s money to keep Leo in his home, Mike takes the money and puts Leo in an assisted living facility. Mike uses the money to pay his legal assistant and take care of his own family, until Kyle comes into his life.

Kyle is Leo’s grandson, and a very talented wrestler. Mike wants Kyle for the team, but Kyle doesn’t need a coach. He needs a family.

I did not expect to love Win Win, but I did. The honesty and the emotions carried me through the story. The ending is a little too happy, but that didn’t ruin the rest of the film for me.


I recommend all these movies. See as many of them as you can. Next week we can dump on action movies again.

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Posted in: Movies