Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK TV Review:

Black Mirror (2011 - ) | Created by Charlie Brooker

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)


Long-form series, like BREAKING BAD and GAME OF THRONES, unfold their stories, season after season, from a foundation of perpetual characters and settings. But an anthology series works from scratch to invent a new cast, a new world, and, most importantly, a new story, episode after episode. Some anthologies, such as LAW & ORDER and THE X-FILES, lighten the load with continuing characters, but not BLACK MIRROR. Like its famous predecessor, THE TWILIGHT ZONE, not all BLACK MIRROR episodes are equally excellent, but then that’s true of any series. Overall, the uniqueness of this tour de force’s episodes rocks the mind.


Unlike the last century’s uncanny monsters (ALIEN) and gothic supernaturals (NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET), the genius of BLACK MIRROR seeps unseen horrors out of the kitchen sink realities of our techno-world, which then slowly infiltrate our everyday life, until the world spins like a tornado. From NATIONAL ANTHEM (S.1 - E.1) to PLAYTEST (S. 3 - E. 2), with each episode, BLACK MIRROR unleashes a chilling, too-real fear of what hides inside the gismos we hold in our hand.


Suspense merges curiosity with emotion. The question “What’s going to happen next?” fills with the dread of “Please don’t let it happen to me.” The tensions in BLACK MIRROR rack our nerves because, although we hope for a happy ending, we know it’s not gonna happen. Early episodes established the series’ storytelling style and warned us that all tales will end in a monsoon of irony: If it’s a downer, the protagonist’s fate will spread a dark smile across his face. If it’s an upper, the protagonist may get what she wants, but she’ll pay a hell of a price for it—probably her soul.


Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

20th Century Women (2016) | Written and Directed by MiKe Mills

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)


Mike Mills wrote and directed this finely crafted minimalist film that unfolds with the depth and complexity of a novel. His portrayal of the inner lives of his characters, their struggles to make meaning, and their unsaid thoughts and feelings draws us into the story like an engrossing work of prose. His camera seems to photograph thoughts.


Maturation Plot, Education Plot and Love Stories with subtle but true character arcs deliver honest portraits of empathetic protagonists.


Again, as in a novel, Mr. Mills moves fluidly through time. His flashbacks and narration parse the exposition seamlessly into the on-going storytelling. He hooks, he holds, he makes us wait until we absolutely need and want to know the storied facts.


Insightful observation and potent comment on the interconnectedness of music and its influence on the characters’ lives.


Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

Manchester by the Sea (2016) | Written and Directed by Kenneth Lonergan

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)

Inciting Incident via Flashback:

Most stories unfold chronologically and so cause and effect happen in that order. The first scenes set up the protagonist’s life and arouse curiosity about the future: “What will happen to this character?” These set-up scenes build to the story’s first major event, the Inciting Incident, this powerful cause triggers the effects that play out in the scenes that follow.

The genius of MANCHESTER BY THE SEA reverses cause and effect, putting the effect before the cause, the cause after the effect.

When the film opens, we meet the protagonist, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), living a deeply troubled, virtually masochistic life. But we don’t know why, and so we naturally wonder, “What happened to this guy?” When our curiosity reaches the boiling point, the film flashes back to the Inciting Incident. This stunning turning point reveals the cause for Chandler’s silent torment and raises the major dramatic question: “Will he survive this tragic trauma or be destroyed by it?”

Superb Execution of the Evolution Plot:

The film dramatizes a rich, complex tale of the soul-destroying power of guilt. The event revealed in the flashback hollows out the protagonist’s humanity and launches a character arc that evolves from the negative (an unlivable inner life) to the positive (a livable inner life).

Memorable Character:

As in other wonderful films like 45 YEARS and the more recent 20TH CENTURY WOMEN, Kenneth Lonergan’s work unfolds like a novel by compelling us into the abyss of the protagonist’s unspoken turmoil, but does so by implication, not explanation. In other words, the story’s spine of action runs through the subtext, not the text, and therefore calls for an actor who can bring the unsaid and the unsayable to life without the aid of on-the-nose dialogue. Casey Affleck’s brilliant portrayal of the war within earned his Oscar nomination and my applause.

And finally for you writers:

I’m frequently asked questions about the placement of a story’s first major event: “Can the inciting incident happen in the backstory? If so, could I flashback to it? Or, could I just leave it there and only imply it?” All such questions get the same answer: “Of course.” A writer can tell her story any way she likes, so long as she knows why she’s telling the story her way and how her choices make her story all the better.

The first half of the following Storylogue Q&A addresses this exact question: Flashbacks: The Question is “Why?”

LA LA LAND (2016)

Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

La La Land (2016) | Written and Directed by Damien Chazelle

McKee Says: It Doesn’t Work

The Musical:

Comparisons (if they’re apples to apples) are always fair. We do it instinctively. When a new Love Story, Comedy, Thriller, or Sci-Fi film premieres, we immediately compare it to the finest of its kind. The benchmark we apply is not “Did they do their best?”, but “Does it measure up to the best?” That’s what people with standards do.

In the greatest American musicals, performers act, sing, and dance with equally brilliant talents in all three dimensions. If they don’t have the voice or the legs—Marlon Brando in GUYS AND DOLLS, Rex Harrison in MY FAIR LADY—they have the good taste to stand still and turn a lyric into a soliloquy. In the best of the best, stellar choreographers and choruses pull off feats that make you jump for joy; sublime composers and lyricists write tunes you’ll warble in the shower for the rest of your life. So when I compare this film to the likes of TOP HAT, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, MUSIC MAN, WEST SIDE STORY, or CHICAGO, it doesn’t.


What makes characters burst into song? The conceit of the Musical is that emotional peaks are beyond words. Dialogue can’t contain them, words can’t express them, so characters, by convention, pour their energies vocally into song and physically into all four limbs. But for me (and I’m sure many will disagree) LA LA LAND’s turning points wouldn’t get anyone out of a chair, let alone launch a song and dance number. The love story’s desires and motivations are so weak, the screenplay simply avoids a last act crisis/climax. Because there’s nowhere to go with these characters, the film finishes on a resolution scene, glazed with sentimentality.


And yet, here’s why I didn’t walk out: Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling exude such empathy, charisma, and good old-fashioned charm, that I’ll stay through anything they’re in, even this.


Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

Hidden Figures (2016) | Direct by Theodore Melfi

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)

The Protagonists are Brilliantly Conceived Underdogs:

Black women of mathematical genius up against antipathetic, envious white men and women of lesser talent in the American South in the time of Jim Crow. The least wrong look or word could get them killed. Our empathy is instantaneous.

Wonderful Acting:

Acted with dignity and without sentimentality.

Pleasure of Learning:

Humbling to know this hidden part of our history. High time it came out.

Horace and Pete (2016)

Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Review:

Horace and Pete (2016) | Written and Directed by Louis C.K.

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)

HORACE AND PETE has given the writing world an event to celebrate: the birth of Web Series Theatre.

Louis C. K.’s new series not only works, it revolutionizes the present by recycling the past. When I looked around for something to compare it to, I first matched its 60+ minute episodes with multi-camera TV shows, but this is not a sitcom. Like a first-person novel, the language projects rich metaphors and word-pictures on our imagination, but they’re acted, not read. Like a play, the dialogue crackles with repartee, then segues into 20-minute speeches of vivid demi-poetry, all bracketed by poignant, long-held silences. Yet it doesn’t really feel like theatre, because it’s not live. Episode 3 brought memories of MY DINNER WITH ANDRE, a famous two-man stage play adapted to the big screen, but HORACE AND PETE isn’t cinema by any means. Finally, my friend, Joel Bernstein, offered this idea: Louis C. K. is the Eugene O’Neill of the Internet.

Indeed, when I put these two authors side by side, they matched and contrasted rather easily. Both C. K. and O’Neill labor in the genre known as Domestic Drama, aka family stories. Their dramatizations (often autobiographically inspired) take place in a home; the struggle for family unity versus schism drives events and raises the same suspense-filled questions: “Will this family stay together or split? Support or betray each other? Survive or self-destruct?”

O’Neill’s LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, for example, dramatizes the Tyrones, a family slit with self-inflicted wounds. O’Neill creates four distinct, mutually antagonistic characters, and then embeds in each an ancient symbol: Behind the mask of the narcissistic, ham-actor father, James Tyrone, hides a Tyrant; his wife, Mary, a delusion-ridden morphine addict, is at heart an Earth Mother; their alcoholic, self-hating son Jamie plays Cain to his super-sensitive brother Edmund’s Abel. To dimensionalize each of his four characters, O’Neill injected an archetype with a dose of modern day neurosis. The result explodes inner contradictions that fascinate.

The Whittell family of HORACE AND PETE, on the other hand, wore their true selves down to the nub long ago. Instead of tragic arcs, C. K. gives them chronic anxiety. With the possible exception of Uncle Pete’s Jester (Alan Alda), everyone in the cast, including the extended family of barstool regulars, is staring into the back of their head, asking themselves, “What the fuck’s the point?”

Ever since he took stage as a standup, Louis C. K. himself has been a walking, talking existential crisis. His shows have made oldfangled angst fashionable again…but with a difference.

Last century modernist authors like Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot), Jean Paul Sartre (No Exit), and Eugene Ionesco (The Chairs) placed highly symbolic characters in highly symbolic situations to pronounce highly symbolic ideas. But that was then. Horace and Pete haven’t the energy to symbolize anything. C. K.’s characters don’t represent the existential crisis; they live it.

Specificity unlocks credibility and credibility opens the door to involvement.

If Louis C. K. (who produces, acts in, and directs his own writing) has a diagnosable neurosis, it’s perfectionism. HORACE AND PETE conducts a master class in the “telling detail”. It’s as if every character’s life history has been plotted back to childhood and beyond, every trait of characterization puzzle-fit with every other trait, and every word of every line cut and polished like a diamond. As a result, from the first gesture on, each episode’s compelling credibility grabs you and holds you.

In the Poetics, Aristotle says that the theatre gives two kinds of pleasure: emotional and mental. In the first case, drama releases tears, fears, and glees that we normally bottle up and never express in public.

But daily life not only smothers feelings, it also barricades the mind. So the mental pleasures of the theatre don’t release, they penetrate. We sit at a fixed distance to onstage action so we can do in the dark what we can’t do in the light: We pierce the surface of behavior and read the hidden truth of human nature, complete with subconscious motivations, contradictions and complexities. This aesthetic education pays off in life with powerful insights into our own humanity and the humanity of others.

Neither of these pleasures are possible, however, if the audience does not trust in what they see. The last thing an author wants is a reader or audience arguing with the believability of her story. Specificity (the telling detail) unlocks credibility and credibility opens the door to involvement. In keeping with this principle, HORACE AND PETE delivers two wonderful pleasures: we learn about people we could never otherwise know, while feeling in ways we’ve never quite felt before. 

Star casting can jeopardize involvement.

The unfortunate HAIL CAESAR!, for example, could not separate its stars from their characters, and rather than finding that ironic, we just disconnected. To be fair, HORACE AND PETE has moments when we suddenly glimpse, “Oh, it’s Edie Falco!” or “Oh, it’s Jessica Lange,” but in the next instant, the stars slip into their roles and we relax into belief.

This may mark the difference between big and small screens. In a movie house, actors are literally bigger than life, so if they don’t keep their performances in check, the star-ness of their massive projections taints the credibility of their characters. But when you hold the cast in your lap, the actors’ personalities recede to let their fictional selves surface quietly and naturally.

Of course, the cast of HORACE AND PETE has acted on screens and stages of all sizes, so the seamless depth of their naturalism may simply be what happens when skilled talent gets a chance to perform inspired writing.

45 Years (2015)

Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

45 Years (2015) | Directed by Andrew Haigh

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)


This fine-spun minimalist work draws qualities and intensities of emotion we often experience in life but rarely in the cinema. 45 YEARS hurts the heart. The storytelling, from the inception of characters and events in the original short story on out to the screen adaptation, pulls off three remarkable feats:

Compressed Power in One Act:

The film executes a one-act movement in 90 perfectly paced minutes of compact event design that wastes nothing—every word, gesture and detail tells its truth. The inciting incident occurs within the first minutes when a letter arrives with news that radically upsets an elderly couple’s life. From there, quiet images flow with a tight-fisted grace. Relatively minor turning points in scenes build impactful sequence climaxes until the story’s one and only act climax explodes in the film’s final image.

Mastery of a High-Risk Genre:

45 YEARS tells its tale inside the seldom-used genre of the Disillusionment Plot. Other examples: CAPOTE (2005), INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (2013), THE IMITATION GAME (2014). The Disillusionment Plot is the dark mirror of the Education Plot.

Both genres pivot around the value of meaninglessness / meaningfulness but in opposite directions. The Education Plot moves from negative (meaninglessness) to positive (meaningfulness) as the protagonist begins the telling in a state of emptiness or despair, living a life of lost purpose. From there he undergoes an “education,” experiences that imbue his existence with meaning and lifts his vision of the future to the positive. Three examples: ABOUT SCHMIDT (2002), LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003), and BIRDMAN (2014).

The Disillusionment Plot reverses this design. In 45 YEARS, Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling) lives, she believes, a fully meaningful life, devoted to her husband, Geoff (Tom Courtenay). His love for her and hers for him gives her life its only purpose.

Then she discovers the truth: Geoff’s first love, Katya, who died 50 years ago, has always been his only true, unchanging, and secret love. Kate, therefore, has always been second best (if that) in Geoff’s life. Her husband (a rather shallow man, truth be told) has faked his feelings over the 45 years of their marriage. Therefore, the one thing that gave her life meaning was never real.

What greater humiliation could a person suffer than to discover that her existence has been rooted in a lie her lover told her on day one and a truth he hid from her for 45 years? None. This explains why the film’s one and only act delivers the emotional power of four Ibsenian acts: It is the final movement of a 45-year set-up.

Skillful Minimalist Technique:

Storytelling minimalism uses minimum text to compress maximum subtext. Subtext, by definition, cannot be written out, and so the bulk of conflict and dramatic action happens unseen, within the characters, below the level of speech. All a minimalist screenwriter can do is leave room under the text and hope the actors bring the unsaid and unsayable to life. And the two stars of 45 YEARS did so with breathtaking force. In scene after scene, Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay held the camera while they silently carved tragic poems, line by line, into their souls.

As we sit watching, minimalism severely tests our empathy, concentration, and indeed, our humanity. Stories like this ask us to actively involve ourselves in the inner lives of characters that outwardly say or do very little. We have to imagine their complex and often subconscious struggles beneath images as simple as a woman head down in thought, walking her dog—images often long held on screen to give us time for absorption. No words of dialogue or narration to explain or confirm our feelings and interpretations. Like the characters, we are on our own.

45 YEARS demands all that and more. The audience must not only read inner lives and empathize but follow the tale’s descending emotional arc to its final implosion in angry, bitter disillusionment. Needless to say, most people will not or cannot make the effort. That’s why the audiences for minimalism are usually minimal.


Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

Where To Invade Next (2015) | By Michael Moore

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)

A Must-See for All Documentary Filmmakers:

Michael Moore uses a rhetorical rather than storified form to structure this documentary and the pay off is very powerful. To build his case, Moore uses examples of the best of European culture - education, nutrition, their penal system, and the quality of their working lives - and compares them to USA’s weakest counterparts. Point by point, country by country, issue by issue, he presents a riveting essay on the sad state of US culture. He slants his argument, no doubt, but that’s the fair game in rhetoric, and by the end of the film, he wins his case.

The Need for Female Leadership:

One theme runs throughout his examples: To create a nurturing rather than combative society, women must take leadership positions alongside men in all sectors of the society. He’s right and we all know it.

One Awkward Stylistic Choice Detracts from the Total Effect:

To unify his essay, Moore uses rather a lame metaphor: In each country he visits he plants an American flag to symbolize his invasion and theft of their ideas. It’s meant to be amusing and ironic, but it distracts from an otherwise elegant documentary.

ROOM (2015)

Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

Room (2015) | Directed by Lenny Abrahamson

McKee Says: It Doesn’t Work

Genre Switching:

The first half of ROOM gives us a subgenre of the Crime Plot known as the Prison Plot, an action/thriller told from a prisoner’s POV as the protagonist struggles against a villainous warden. Examples: MISERY and THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, both created by Stephen King.

The second half of ROOM turns to an Evolution Plot. This genre arcs its protagonist’s humanity or inner self from negative to positive. In this film, Joy (Brie Larson), suffering from PTSD, moves from a damaged self to a healed self. Examples: The TV series IN TREATMENT, the novels of Tim O’Brien such as Northern Lights, and the films ORDINARY PEOPLE, SOPHIE’S CHOICE, and MYSTIC RIVER.

Why has ROOM’s writer strung together two simple, shallow, half-stories, rather than create one profound, complex, complete story? My guess…creative inertia.

If Joy’s escape plan had failed, and Nick (Sean Bridgers) had locked her and her son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) back inside the shed, then to engineer Joy’s ultimate escape from such cramped sparse space, the storytelling would have demanded ingenious yet credible writing, powered by a gifted imagination. Then the rest of the film would be the author answering the riveting dramatic dilemma: “Will Joy and Jack escape this maniac’s hell-hole? And if so, how in the world will she do it?”

On the other hand, had the film opened with Joy and Jack escaping the shed, then their Evolution Plots would have called for superb creativity of another kind: brilliant psychological insight into the intricacies of PTSD, along with subtle delineations of human nature under mind-breaking pressures. The major dramatic questions now become: “Will Joy and Jack find the inner resources needed to repair their damaged psyches? And if so, how?”

Hows of story can break an author’s back and brain. Some just aren’t up to the heavy lifting. ROOM does not work because neither half of the film comes anywhere near its generic potential. When a writer buys a genre, it comes with a tag that reads, “Use me.”

The Oscar Nomination:

Why, we might ask, does the weak and shoaly ROOM get a Best Picture nomination? I can think of many reasons: In part because the novel on which it’s based won numerous book awards and the academy likes to wrap itself in things literary; in part because the child’s voice-overs coated the film with the ever-sweet optimism and up-lifting sentimentality the academy loves; and in part because it dramatizes violence against women, a social crisis the academy wants to acknowledge. Despite this charitable gesture, however, I can’t help but wonder if the film would have gotten its Oscar nod had Joy been played by an actress of color and Jack by an ugly kid.


The novel won many awards, sold very well, and reads much like a screenplay. It’s told in the first person voice of the five-year-old Jack, written in the present tense, and for the most part, consists of dialogue scenes. These three devices keep the sexual abuse in the nightmarish shed and the PTSD it causes at an emotionally safe distance. The author is Canadian.

The charm, so to speak, of the novel is its point/counterpoint portrayal of an innocent mind enveloped by a depravity it cannot fathom. The irony that enriches the novel evaporates onscreen for the obvious reason: You cannot photograph thought.

In the novel, we inhabit Jack’s mind as we take his first person point of view. In the film, despite the boy’s voice-overs, we take the camera’s third person point of view. Simply put, prose cannot move sideways into film. To capture the spirit of her novel on screen, author and screenwriter Emma Donoghue would have had to reinvent it radically.


Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

The Revenant (2015) | Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)

THE REVENANT epitomizes cinematic storytelling:

Minimum dialogue, maximum imagery. Note, however, that nature motifs of snow-covered fields and cloud-wrapped mountains only color the mood and balance pacing. No matter how well composed, skyscapes and landscapes cannot tell a story. Bodies and faces of characters reacting to human, animal, and physical adversaries tell the story, and tell it brilliantly–a tale of the most astonishing and yet authentic brutality I have ever seen.

THE REVENANT tells a Testing Plot:

A favorite of Ernest Hemingway in novels such as The Old Man and the Sea, this rarely used genre dramatizes the dynamic of Willpower versus Giving Up. Some recent examples: 127 HOURS, ALL IS LOST, and Xiaogang Feng’s BACK TO 1942. To enrich its central plot, THE REVENANT also draws on two supporting genres: Action/Adventure and the Crime Story. Although the values of Life/Death and Justice/Injustice add dimension, without the depth that the Testing Plot brings, the film would be just another tale of revenge.

What a pleasure to watch two pros at work. Alejandro González Iñárritu and Leonardo DiCaprio must love what they do or they wouldn’t kill themselves doing it.

CAROL (2015)

Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

Carol (2015) | Directed by Todd Haynes

McKee Says: It Doesn’t Work (Spoiler Alert!)

Story and Character Clichés:

The Inciting Incident of a Love Story arrives when the lovers first meet and the specific qualities of that encounter shape the drama that follows. CAROL, set in the 1950’s, opens with a shop girl meeting a married woman, a scene saturated with unspoken thoughts and feelings. As a result, the audience naturally anticipates a character-driven tale of psychological complexity inside a secretive lesbian world. Instead, the film quickly switches genre from Love Story to Social Drama. The telling’s actual Inciting Incident happens when Carol’s soon-to-be ex-husband decides to use her lesbianism as a legal ploy to win custody of their daughter. This mangy cat of a plot then drags in a scruffy pile of bedraggled clichés–an abusive husband, a chauvinistic society, a sleazy private eye, and a legal system prejudiced against women. When screenwriters switch genres like this, it’s because they aren’t up to writing complex characters for a Love Story, and so they take the easy way out: Social Drama.

Great Performances by the Actresses:

The film is not a total loss and all I can say is “Thank God for actors.” Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara fill their bland, shallow characters with a subtext of their own and save the evening. Cate Blanchett has become such a master of physicalization, rivaling Meryl Streep in her ability to find the body, the look, gestures and vocal manifestations that make a fascinating and specific character.

Art Film Cinematography Cliché:

The film’s presentational genre is Art Film, done in the most self-conscious fashion. I lost count of endlessly repeated images of the women behind windows of every kind, shot in soft focus, the glass streaked with rain or spattered with snow, reflecting the foliage around the car or the house or the wherever. Anytime you come out of a film thinking the thought “Beautifully photographed,” the filmmaking has, in fact, failed. Cinematography should never be decorative but always expressive, an unnoticed transparency that carries us subliminally into the depths of character and story. That takes original, not imitative talent.


Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

The Big Short (2015) | Directed by Adam McKay

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)

Good Action/Farce Genre Example:

By genre, THE BIG SHORT merges Action with Farce but replaces physical derring-do with financial derring-do. If it were straight-forward Action/Adventure, a group of survivors would be scaling mountains, crossing raging rivers, and fighting off mutants while trying to escape a volcano that’s about to explode. But this story takes place in the world of high-stakes investment, so they do all of that metaphorically. The volcano that explodes, or rather implodes, is the real life, world-wide 2008 financial disaster.

Wonderful Treatment of Exposition:

THE BIG SHORT executes the most ingenious solution to the problem of jargon-thick, technical exposition I have ever seen. The writers bring in “professional explainers” and puts them in various comic settings, such as a bathtub full of bubbles. The “explainers” then talk direct-to-camera in the simplest possible language, laying out the facts, hoping we get it. If we don’t, it doesn’t matter because at least they tried and we got some laughs.

Empathetic Characters:

Like SPOTLIGHT, the audience knows the outcome of the story, and so watches it unfold from the point of view of the dramatic irony. But unlike SPOTLIGHT, THE BIG SHORT created morally complex, empathetic characters that face great personal risks. As a result, we feel for these guys. (See SPOTLIGHT review from last week).