5 Types of Turning Points

One of the best representations of life after death is the turning point.  More than a simple plot twist, a turning point takes the momentum of a movie to an abrupt halt to completely change directions.  You have to kill it before you end it, but it must be organic.  The outcome is the spirit of the film, the soul, and breaks free of the physical trappings of what happens prior to the turning point. Fail to mark this event and you will have predictable and boring results.  Fail tactfully employ this procedure and your ending will seem unjustified and lazy.  If you do your job right, with the end in mind, you will lead the story away from the outcome, until the perfect moment comes to finally guide your characters toward their intended purpose.  Whether it’s a slap or a whisper there are several effective ways to bring your story home by way of the turning point.  Here are some of my favorites (this list contains SPOILERS by its very nature):

From Dusk ‘Til Dawn (the game changer)

More than a mere turning point, From Dusk ‘Til Dawn completely changes genres.  It’s like if Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid got halfway through and suddenly became The Lost Boys.  The criminal protagonist take a traveling family hostage in order to sneak across the border into Mexico to escape the law.  Once they are home free, the trouble begins when the bar they stop at to meet their correspondent turns out to be a trap run by vampires who aren’t after repeat business.  The switch is fun and very surprising if you don’t already know it’s a vampire movie.  It feels as though the movie is nearly over before the real fight for survival even begins.  Less effective was the much earlier implementation of this tactic in the recently released The World’s End.

Fight Club (reveal reversal)

I call this one the reveal reversal.  The movie itself doesn’t change at all.  it’s only your perception.  You go through with blinders on until you can’t take it anymore and the blindfold is replaced by a mirror to show you where you’ve been before finally showing you where you are in order to finish the story.  In the case of Fight Club it’s the realization that Tyler and… well, let’s call him Jack are actually the same person after Tyler has built up and subsequently destroyed the narrator’s sense of self worth.  The epiphany puts all that has happened previously into perspective, just before Tyler’s master plan is revealed so the stage is set for a massive showdown nobody saw coming.  This method was also used in The Sixth Sense as a twist ending rather than a turning point.

Rocky (the mind changer)

Sylvester Stallone is not known for subtlety, but as Rocky prepares for his match against Apollo, expectations mount in the collective audience.  Sly must have known this and cleverly decided to reshape those expectations and add an extra layer of satisfaction to an already superior ending.  Anyone going into the film for the first time would expect Rocky to beat Apollo, even though it would not make much sense.  If he wins it’s phony and predictable, but if he loses its just sad.  It’s a catch 22 nicely fixed with a small scene where Rock confides in Adrienne that he knows he can’t win and all he wants to do is go the distance– something nobody else has ever done.  Boom!  Surprise!  Perfect ending.  This method was also used but did not work so well in Ghost World.

Independence Day (the ray of hope)

Possibly the most common and with the most varied success rate, this is a fake out turning point.  It goes where it was always intended to go, but only after creating a false sense of hopelessness and creating a small sliver of a chance for the audience to grab onto.  In ID4 it seems as though Earth is doomed.  David gives up on his “save the world through recycling” philosophy and has absolutely no hope of redeeming the human race by fighting off an alien invasion.  That is until the idea is put into his head that he can give them “a cold” (In this case, a computer virus, but also a clever nod to H.G. Wells)  Suddenly, the plot goes from a stand still with nowhere to go, to a grand climax on board the mother ship.  Minority Report accomplishes this with another slip of the tongue from the film’s antagonist that regenerates the plot motion towards completion, but more commonly it is done intentionally through a mentor.

Back to the future (the turn straight!)

There are the movies that refuse to turn despite the characters’ will.  The outcome is anticipated, yet the protagonist is repeatedly held back from achieving his goal, especially when time is of the essence.  This can be maddening, but is hugely effective, especially in the case of the above listed title.  This is a difficult move to accomplish, resisting an easy answer and drawing out a climax can have audiences on the edge of their seat or, bored to tears.  You have to have some sort of time element involved, even if it’s the slowly sinking Orca at the end of the captivating shark hunt in Jaws.

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Simplicity=Complexity>Complicated

gi amazing 2I like to figure out what makes things work.  I don’t have a work desk cluttered with vacuum cleaner parts or anything, and I still think televisions are magic, but complicated things are like complicated ideas, which then become complicated movies.  I like to build things without the instructions before I realize I made a huge mistake and start over.  One thing that I find interesting about both movies and anything material that requires assembly is that the simpler it is, the fewer the parts and those parts tend to serve a dual purpose, functionality and style.  The more complicated, once you crack open the hood you find a big ugly mess of raw function.

I think that films are the same way.  Small films can be great fun.  A really enjoyable, but simple movie is never unimpressive.  Big, movies with lots of moving parts are very ambitious projects that not many can handle. It’s a problem that tends to be very unique to large properties, such as those based on comics, or blockbusters like Transformers and Pirates of the Caribbean.  Spider Man 3, was pretty disliked and one of the biggest, but also most vague complaints about it was that “they” tried to do too much.  TDKR also got criticism for being overly complicated.  Every X Men movie, even  First Class, is notorious for jamming more characters than necessary into the picture.  Jon Favreau turned down returning to Iron Man 3 as director for various official reasons, but word early on was he was concerned about flooding the film with too many characters.  The pressure to overcomplicate these films comes from the studios who want to be able to market more action figures.  Joel Schumacher was under a lot of pressure from Warner Bros. to turn the Batman franchise into basically a feature-length commercial for Batman toys.

But what makes a movie go from a solid, provocative, and even admirable complexity to an overcomplicated tangled mess?  Iron Man 2 had dangerous potential to be convoluted and dizzying, but they had good mechanics.  The Dark Knight was the epitome of the kind of masterfully woven tapestry of story that Chris Nolan has become known for.  I think the key is functionality.

The Dark Knight had a theme that was continuously reiterated by the story’s central characters.  The theme was choice.  It was full of dichotomies:  Dark Knight/White Knight, Chaos/Order, Bruce Wayne’s inner dichotomy, Two Faces outer dichotomy, Batman’s struggle to reconcile freedom and justice, and Harvey’s resignation to chance determining his actions.  For all that is going on in the movie, everything taps into the same theme and reinforces the body as a whole.  In Iron Man 2 the theme was legacy.  It’s like a home base you can return to if things are getting out of hand.

If a movie is particularly large and hosts a number of sub-plots and a wide cast of characters you need to determine above all else, what the heart of the story is.  It can’t just be a simple heroes journey.  It must be thought about as a thesis, with each separate plot supporting it.  When you make a movie about a flawed hero overcoming obstacles and saving the day, it’s best to give him one nemesis for a tight well-rounded effective and exciting story.   You don’t want him facing a thief with superpowers, who’s trying to save his daughter, a former BFF dead set on vengeance, and a work rival who gets his hands on your symbiont costume and becomes the worst ever representation of Venom.  Spiderman 3 had three major villains and no heart.  Peter Parker’s struggle is explored to death and yet it still works in small doses.  It isn’t enough, however to support so many adversaries without a central theme that they can plug into.  It’s also a terrible waste of great villains.

The easier the movie can be summed up in one idea (better yet, one word), the easier it is to connect all of the characters to that idea so that they serve a unique function in telling your masterpiece.  If you try to give each character their own separate objective that does not reinforce the theme of the primary storyline the film becomes fragmented and crushed under its own weight.

The Amazing Spiderman was a great movie.  It’s a brilliant retelling of the origin story with terrific new vision.  It was also a pretty standard hero movie.  The upcoming sequel, following in the tradition of pretty much all hero movie sequels, has a cast list that looks like an unfinished brainstorm.  The talent is stellar and it isn’t necessarily bad news, but it isn’t looking great either.  Jamie Foxx, Paul Giamatti, and Chris Cooper have all been cast in villains roles.  Foxx plays Electro (guess what he does) and Giamatti will be Rhino, which is an interesting choice, but I have no problem going with it.  Now as far as I can tell, Cooper is signed on to play Norman Osborn, who becomes the Green Goblin, but where Foxx and Giamatti are credited with characters names AND their supervillain names i see nothing actually saying Green Goblin will make an appearance.  That would be good.

It makes perfect sense to set Norman Osborn up as a main character as he runs Oscorp and likely has something to do with the mystery that Parker continues to unravel about his parents.  The Incredible Hulk pits Banner against the Abomination making his defeat the resolution while his real nemesis, General Ross, lives to fight another day.  Similarly, Loki conjures up the The Destroyer for Thor to battle and saves his best stuff for later.  Allowing a character to be introduced without giving them their own storyline to finish is like a delicious glass of Sam Adams, always a good decision.

Norman probably enlists Electro and/or Rhino as thugs.  that would be typical and raises no alarms to my mind.  Since there is no way such great talent is going to be squandered on roles like Toad and Sabortooth in the original X Men, I think it’s a good chance we are in for a nice ride.  Marc Webb is still directing, The Kurtzman/Ortiz writing team are big hitters scripting the story by James Vanderbilt who penned The Amazing Spiderman.  I would not expect a big thematically interwoven monument of a film, but provided Norman Osborn stays out of the green suit this could be a fascinating sequel.

Review: Amazing Spiderman