Commentary / Essays
I'm a multiple award-winning journalist, film and fiction fan, and creative storyteller. From writing articles, essays, reviews, lists, and profiles to collaborating on books and screenplays, I have a knack for detailed, engaging stories.
My interviews include director John Sayles (Baby It’s You), screenwriting guru Robert McKee (Story), actor/director Joely Fisher, actor/writer Tricia Leigh Fisher, and screenwriters Gary Whitta (The Book of Eli), Patrick Sheane Duncan (Courage Under Fire), and Isaac Adamson (Bubbles). My work has appeared at The Hollywood Reporter, RogerEbert.com, The Guardian, Script magazine, Bright Wall/Dark Room, The Script Lab, ScreenCraft, the Final Draft blog, Signature Reads, MovieMaker, Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, Film Racket and more. I’m also a "Rotten Tomatoes" approved critic and an emerging script consultant working with the Tampa Bay Film Society and Screenwriters of Tomorrow.
Commentary / Essays
Unless you’ve been asleep on a starship lumbering across the cosmos, you know that “Alien” turns 40 this year. So does Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), its enduring character and one of my favorite cinematic heroes of all time. Ripley is the film’s sole human survivor, the person we now think of as its hero, though she was never supposed to be. She ended up taking control of the franchise, at least for two movies, before the films pumped up more of the creature and reduced what people like me...
A female investigator has two duplicitous mentors: One, a secretive supervisor; the other, a criminal who's a necessary ally. Each uses her to his own ends. She's a woman of integrity, not to be underestimated, but in trying to find the light, she finds more darkness. Sound familiar?
People often imagine subtext like an iceberg: We might see a bit of the story up-front, but there's a whole lot more going on underneath. I like to think of subtext like filling: the sweet, nutty inside of a chocolate bar, or the cream within an eclair.
Jack Skellington can't stay in his lane-and we love that about him. The Pumpkin King of Halloween has been tumbling into Christmas for 25 years now, trying to translate its enchantment with comically eerie results.
For someone who won an Academy Award for writing a puzzle box of a film, Christopher McQuarrie does not like to plan. But that doesn’t mean he throws everything at the wall to see what sticks.
With the action-thriller shark tale The Meg chowing down on its box office competition, we wondered: What's the appeal of giant creatures that want to eat us? It turns out that monster movies—especially those featuring giant teeth—reach us on a psychological level beyond basic storytelling, according to academics and others who dive deep into these stories.
Snow falls against a night blue sky outside the hotel room where two lovers exist briefly outside of time. Isn't it like that when you're in love? Time slows when you lock eyes across the table, seems to stop altogether-or you wish it would-when you lean in for a kiss.
Ant-Man and the Wasp adds another memorable adversary to Marvel’s gallery with Ghost, a woman who can phase through solid matter and, like a true specter, lingers in audiences’ minds long after the end credits.
Jack Foley didn't have a lot of time to think. Prison breaks are like that. Covered in sewage muck and wearing a stolen guard's uniform, he walked up to the woman in the Chanel suit pointing a shotgun at him.
Films like A Quiet Place show ways to add subtext to your script beyond focusing on dialogue. Valerie Kalfrin examines how to express subtext through action, scene and character descriptions, character names, settings, even an entire scene or the theme of your screenplay.
The nude heels that Bryce Dallas Howard's Claire Dearing wore throughout 2015's Jurassic World launched dozens of essays about how impractical and inane - if not sexist - they were. And her footwear in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom - high heels in civilization and combat boots in the jungle -is drawing a lot of focus.
Avengers: Infinity War knocked fans for a loop - but audiences can't say they weren't warned. Directors the Russo Brothers and cinematographer Trent Opaloch used a particular camera movement early in the film to clue in audiences that they were in for a wild ride.
The haunting ending of Avengers: Infinity War gives audiences a lot to discuss. But one of the film's most exhilarating aspects is how little it talks about what might draw stares in public: an Avenger with a disability. James "Rhodey" Rhodes, aka War Machine (Don Cheadle), returns to action in this film after a paralyzing injury in 2016's Captain America: Civil War.
The latest women in action at the box office would share enthralling stories if we asked, "What do you do?" Go beyond a character's career and explore what she does in the plot to develop complex female characters actors want to play--and audiences want to watch.
If characters are what they do, a great way to learn how to write action that reveals character is to study scenes and scripts without a lot of dialogue--especially animated films.
With Black Panther and Tomb Raider perched at the top of the box office earlier this year, audiences can see a multitude of powerful female characters lately. They aren't just action heroes, though-they're women of action. Women of action drive the plot.
If you're writing about disabled characters and you are not disabled, develop these characters beyond their abilities to tell an authentic story. Consider a disability part of a character's makeup, not the driving engine for your screenplay. Click to tweet this article to your friends and followers!
Elisa, the protagonist of The Shape of Water, may be mute, but how the film treats her speaks volumes about portraying characters with disabilities onscreen. For all its whimsical touches, director Guillermo del Toro's enchanting magical-realist romance refreshingly takes the time to view her as a fully realized person.
Writer/director James Mangold adores the taciturn Western hero, an archetype that he's woven into some of his best-known work. Whether he's crafting a story about a lonely cook (the 1995 indie Heavy), a suburban sheriff (Cop Land), or even country music legend Johnny Cash (2005's Walk the Line), Mangold mines a reticence in his protagonists that yields dramatic gems. His latest project, Logan, wowed comics fans and critics alike by upending the superhero genre to tell an absorbing character...
Humor is a peculiar tool for a writer. Laughter can add layers to a character and woo an audience, but it can backfire when the jokes drain emotion from an otherwise powerful moment. The late John Hughes had a knack for knowing when to sneak in a gag and when to let a moment breathe.
The young lawyer shuddered, feeling a tad nauseated in the company of his client, though he didn't know why. The count had been nothing but gracious, yet the firelight seemed to emphasize his pointy teeth and claw-like fingernails. Once wolves howled outside, the count's eyes gleamed. "Listen to them, the children of the night.
Screenwriting is a dream that entices many of us-but all too often, it seems as if the City of Stars romanticized in La La Land is enthralled only with those on the sunny side of forty. Film fans know well that Quentin Tarantino and Diablo Cody were in their twenties when they broke in to the industry with Reservoir Dogs and Juno, respectively.
More of the same, yet different. That's the hurdle facing screenwriters with sequels. Bring back enough of what audiences liked-the characters, the themes, the tone--yet give them something new that makes another film worthwhile. A sequel set years after the original seems to have additional obstacles.
Identity and humanity are two concepts that science fiction loves to explore, so it’s a shame when a film that touts these themes does little more than give them lip service. This year’s live-action take on the 1995 anime "Ghost in the Shell" is one such hot mess of a movie.
Few things beguile Sofia Coppola more than the female mind. Her films' meticulous detail and deliberate pacing make us curious like the boys who loved the unobtainable Lisbon sisters in her feature-film debut, The Virgin Suicides, based on the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides.
The visually striking "Blade Runner 2049" plunges audiences back down a futuristic rabbit hole mingling noir sensibilities with artificial beings living among people who want to eliminate them. But this sequel to 1982's "Blade Runner" goes way beyond cat-and-mouse suspense to explore what makes us human. Author Philip K.
The archetype of the morally ambiguous getaway driver driven to care about something besides crime gets a fresh spin in Baby Driver, a hugely entertaining caper that mixes comedy, drama, and character through action.
Whether you're building one film or several with story threads and characters that intertwine, you need a solid foundation with a focused story and a clear tone. The latest incarnation of The Mummy, a Tom Cruise summer vehicle meant to launch interconnected films with our best-known movie monsters, is built on sand.
The proper tone in a fantastical story can be as elusive as the truth that Wonder Woman seeks with her golden lasso. Phenomenal powers, secret identities, unusual creatures, high-tech gizmos, mystical lands--all can prove distracting, with the potential to veer too far into bleakness or camp.
Aaron Sorkin is known for intelligent, rapid-fire dialogue, but his characters' voices are the last things he imagines when creating them. The Oscar-winning screenwriter of 2010's The Social Network fell in love with the sound of dialogue as a child because his parents often took him to the theater.
By Valerie Kalfrin If you want to pitch a TV series, consider the metaphor of a road trip. You don't just pack a bag or talk about what you'd like to see and do at your destination. You also want to know who's coming with you, whose vehicle you'll use, and your general route and possible stops along the way.
There are no secrets to crafting a good story, though it sure feels that way at times. Venerable screenwriting instructor Robert McKee can sympathize. For some people, the words seem to flow as if the writer tapped into a stream--or a high-speed wireless download from the Muse.
The shenanigans of some Scottish lads who used to shoot heroin together is an unlikely foundation for a sequel, let alone one set twenty years after audiences first met these guys. You wouldn't be blamed for wondering which of these blokes is still alive.
The crime genre unites the tragic and the absurd like little else. Before focusing on fictional mayhem, I was a crime journalist for 10 years. I covered a rail-riding serial killer who clubbed people to death in three states, a bank robber unfortunate to have the dye pack explode in his pants, and an escapee in an orange jail jumpsuit arrested on Christmas Eve wearing the elf hat and bootees he’d scrounged from a car to keep warm. The officer I interviewed was named—I kid you not—Holliday.
Margaret Atwood is fearless. Intelligent and wildly imaginative, but fearless, too, for the way she twists a thought or an image not just into something gruesome but universal and biting and true. She's a writer who plays with language and characters, multiple meanings and layers, someone not afraid to go there and then tell us where she's been.
If in space no one can hear you scream, torment is doubly painful. Inside her cocoon aboard a starship, the woman looks peaceful, but she's forced to sleep, unable to dream, and on a course toward a waking nightmare. The soldiers in the 1986 sci-fi blockbuster Aliens have a rugged camaraderie and share worn quarters that feel timeless. It’s the then-quiet protagonist, apart from the others, who is ahead of her time—and still is.
Beautiful as Aphrodite, wise as Athena . . . With such accolades describing Wonder Woman on everything from T-shirts to coffee cups, it's no wonder that fashioning a story about her seemed as intimidating as scaling Mount Olympus.
As storytellers and moviegoers, we crave connection – and these early touches that pay off later foster that feeling. Done well, they trust an audience to pay attention to details, then reward them when they do.
Writing a story with an ensemble cast is like serving a pie with equal slices. You might start with an idea delicious enough for five or more characters, but if you don’t balance them just right during the writing process, one or two of the characters will draw your attention and hog a good chunk of that tasty enterprise, leaving the rest with slivers.
The new original film musical "La La Land" twirls in the bright colors and grand cinematic footsteps of classics such as "Singin' in the Rain." It also presents a contemporary dilemma: Can love survive between two ambitious and talented Los Angelenos?
With T2 Trainspotting, screenwriter John Hodge pulls off a feat other writers envy: a character-focused sequel set - and released - twenty years after the original that's poignant and funny, even with a plot that's beside the point.
Heroic women in adventure stories have navigated a tricky path for years thanks to the idea that the target audience for such films was young men. But Disney's Moana and Felicity Jones’s rebel hero Jyn Erso in the Star Wars spinoff Rogue One are inspiring examples for writers wanting to create realistic female action characters, especially for young people.
Marvel's Man without Fear returned to Netflix this month for a second season of crime-fighting on the gritty streets and rooftops of Hell's Kitchen. Daredevil, a superhero series aimed at adults, kept powers and costumes subtle during its freshman run as blind attorney turned vigilante Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) handled legal maneuvers as deftly as fisticuffs, thanks to his heightened senses.
Like dinosaur DNA preserved in amber, the works of late author Michael Crichton keep bringing new generations of provocative stories to life. In early October 2016, HBO debuts "Westworld," a series inspired by the 1973 film Crichton wrote and directed about a futuristic theme park in which the artificial life forms run wild.
We all remember how old we were when we first lost a friend in the real world. But friends in literature? That's another story. Charlotte A. Cavatica was the first I mourned as a child. I remember crying buckets and flipping through earlier chapters of Charlotte's Web so I could see her with Wilbur while she was still alive.
With the drama Me Before You rankling disabled people and their loved ones on both sides of the pond (and the director still stoking the fire), it's time to applaud another current film for two low-key but giant leaps for disabled characters onscreen: Captain America: Civil War.
The first female character in Jurassic Park arrives onscreen in a metal box atop a forklift that smashes through the jungle. She bides her time, silent. We’re with her as she glimpses through the slats at a swarm of armed men. They’re wearing hardhats. She snorts. The men push the box against a larger cage, but she’s stronger than expected. “Don’t let her get out!” one shouts as she drags one worker by the legs, hoists him high. Dozens jab stun guns through the bars. Electricity crackles,...
Bad narration is like watching a movie with someone chatting in the seat behind you, except you can’t turn around and tell him or her to be quiet. Narration, or voice-over, seems counterintuitive to film, which ideally speaks to us in action, images and dialogue.
Action sequences can be tricky to write. Screenwriters often struggle to strike a balance between orienting the reader/viewer and directing the scene. Run Lola Run is one action film with a style as unique as its protagonist’s flame-colored hair. This 1998 German independent film offers audiences a Groundhog Day-style narrative peppered with animation, allusions to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and meditations on fate—all within about an hour and 15 minutes.
Good dialogue strikes a nerve, usually in my spine. I'll sit up taller or lean in closer to hear it better while my brain stores it away for later. Bad dialogue hits me in my gut, or slaps me in the forehead.
Roald Dahl, who would have been 100 years old on September 13, wrote plenty of macabre tales for adults that inspired suspense and mystery teleplays on TV shows such as "Alfred Hitchcock Presents."
For writers, turning the page on a new year may mean the anxiety of facing a blank page - or the excitement of finally attempting to write that novel or screenplay that's been knocking around the near-conscious.
Black- and blue-tinged images unfurl to the low bass of a violin. A rosary. Drops of blood. Tarot cards. A scorpion curling its tail. A scalpel slicing into a cadaver. An insect flailing against a spider's web.
Whether they're working with pixels or pencils, animators fill us with awe. They create not just worlds from scratch but characters whose eyes and body language alone speak volumes, even if they never utter a word.
The death of Robin Williams hits hard, even for those of us who knew him only as fans. We're sad for his three children, now without their father, his wife, and longtime friends.
You know the type: goofy enough for a mental vacation but not so inane that you become frustrated. It has a preposterous premise, hokey dialogue and unbelievable stunts, but the humor and the chemistry of the whole package just click. You find yourself grinning, delighting in it enough that you tell the more logical part of your brain to relax.
After uniting The Avengers, writer-director Joss Whedon recharged with a pet project: adapting and shooting a black-and-white version of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing over twelve days at his house in Santa Monica, CA. Out June 7, the film stars Whedon veterans Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof as Beatrice and Benedick, sharp-tongued adversaries who grow into love after friends play matchmaker.
With Sunday's series finale, the acclaimed AMC crime drama " Breaking Bad " wraps up a modern-day Greek tragedy. Over five seasons, this Primetime Emmy winner for Outstanding Drama Series has watched Walter White (Bryan Cranston) evolve from an Albuquerque chemistry teacher dying of lung cancer to a methamphetamine kingpin.
AMC's " The Walking Dead" ends its third season on Sunday, March 31, with all signs pointing toward a battle between The Governor's well-armed troops and Deputy Rick Grimes' ragtag band of survivors defending their prison hideout. It's no coincidence the post-apocalyptic showdown brings to mind the battle of The Alamo.
Features / News / Profiles
The venerable screenwriting instructor Robert McKee is not only a knowledgeable craftsman, but also a fan of well-spun tales, whether on stage, in books, or on screen. Creator of the three-day STORY seminar-and a celebrity among academics, thanks to Brian Cox's portrayal in 2002's Adaptation-McKee is blunt yet eloquent as he glides from films he adores and despises.
The Closer introduced TV mystery fans to the prickly and intense Brenda Leigh Johnson, a brilliant CIA-trained interrogator recruited by L.A.P.D. Assistant Chief Will Pope to head a new homicide squad for high-profile cases. Johnson's thin veneer of Southern charm often cracks as she hones in on a suspect, but she gets results: "She's not Miss Congeniality, I'm aware of that, but she is a closer," Pope says.
Joely Fisher's feature directorial debut is a true family affair. Her sister, Tricia Leigh Fisher, worked on the original script, and their children read it through to make it as authentic as possible. Well, as authentic as a story about teens searching for their parents amid magical and mystical elements can be.
Story is a guiding principle for writer-director John Sayles. For nearly forty years, he’s made films outside the studio system such as Eight Men Out, Honeydripper, and Lone Star, creating emotional pyrotechnics through characters, relationships, and nuance. Yet to him, independent filmmaking is more about a state of mind—and storytelling—than financing.
As a veteran screenwriter, Patrick Sheane Duncan is used to hearing suggestions, some mind-boggling, about his work. Imagine his surprise when the publishers he pitched wanted to tinker with the premise like a film studio would. Did it have to be set during World War II? they asked.
Deborah Kerr had never made a film before, but she knew a good story when she saw one. Kerr had watched her husband, George "Buddy" Kerr, work as The Tampa Tribune's production manager for decades, even through layoffs.
For its twelfth year, the Sunscreen Film Festival boasts an impressive lineup of 125 feature and short films, celebrity guests such as Dylan McDermott and Joe Pantoliano, a film market, and workshops to help actors, screenwriters, producers and other aspiring filmmakers tell their stories.
Bald and cleanshaven, wearing glasses, jeans and a blue blazer, author James Ellroy stands spread-eagled on the cherry-colored carpet at Columbia University in New York City and introduces himself as only this volcano of verbiage can.
Leigh Dittman is proof that small actions over time can have a huge impact. There are the painful ones. With osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease, the Lutz teenager is prone to fractures. Any bump can feel more like a blow. At 15, Leigh has had 36 broken bones and 14 surgeries.
The outside of a building isn't just a canvas to artist Chad Mize but an opportunity to transform and energize the urban landscape. Mize painted a mural of '60s icon Twiggy with stars in her eyes behind his former gallery Bluelucy in the 600 block of Central Avenue.
Comedian Ron White shot to mainstream fame on the Blue Collar Comedy Tour, but traveling with his wife is a real trip. White returns to Tampa for two shows on his "Nutcracker" tour at the Straz Center on Saturday night.
Wish you could eat less? Resist junk food? Get to bed earlier? It takes time to get in a healthy-habit groove. In the meantime, balance out your slip-ups with easy little health saves.
The whistling strains of "Sweet Georgia Brown" and the happy-go-lucky rhythm of basketballs bound into the Amalie Arena for one night next week as the Harlem Globetrotters bounce into town to celebrate the team's 90th anniversary. Ostensibly, they're taking on the World All-Stars, assuming the Washington Generals' position as perpetual foils for the team's comedic pranks and world-record-worthy athleticism.
Steve Tatone of Sarasota knew he had a hot story and a great soundtrack behind the film he wrote, " Beautiful Noise," a twisty drama and romance between musicians. The producer and director also knew he needed financing to bring the script to the screen.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of a vulture stalking a starving Sudanese child haunted Alysia Sofios for years. The television reporter recalls discussing the late Kevin Carter's famous photograph in college and feeling disturbed when none of her classmates said they would have helped the child.
The memories are always there, just below the surface like stones in a shallow pond. David and Lynda Yoder struggle with them daily. There are photos around the house, of course, of their smiling daughter. Carrie made a lace-trimmed blue gown to dance the Viennese waltz at charity balls. She went sky diving 61 times. She spoke fluent Spanish, hiked near waterfalls in Mexico and skied in Switzerland.
Love for superheroes-and this super family in particular-zings throughout Incredibles 2, an invigorating all-ages adventure that slips in sly commentary about what truly makes a hero. Fourteen years ago, Disney/Pixar introduced The Incredibles, about a family with extraordinary powers forced to live incognito. "Supers" are still outlawed when Incredibles 2 begins, fresh on the original's heels.
Ocean's 8 breezes along the way Debbie Ocean cruises through the luxe Bergdorf Goodman after five years in prison-light on its feet with a calculating mind. This all-female heist film gets the feel of the fizzy end of this genre (like 2003's The Italian Job) just right.
Solo: A Star Wars Story swoops into theaters like the rakish smuggler himself-underestimated and with a reputation for trouble. Happily, this backstory for the space flyboy also is like its namesake in other ways: funny, surprising, and good at heart.
A scientist tests the boundaries of existence only to question her sanity in Anti Matter, a smart low-budget science-fiction film that layers philosophical questions within its spooky premise.
The growing pains of having superpowers take center stage in Spider-Man: Homecoming, which skips the hero's origin story to focus on the fun and foibles of adolescence.
The world's worst supervillain turned secret agent and his Minions still whip up some laughs in Despicable Me 3, but this film could have been way more bananas.
With his right eye in a near-perpetual scowl and a gruff voice, Brad Pitt stomps through War Machine as a general used to carrying high stakes on his shoulders. Unfortunately, he can't carry this movie, which suffers from slow pacing, an uneven tone, and too much narration as it dramatizes part of the War in Afghanistan and the firing of the armed-forces commander there.
Dakota Fanning's wide, expressive eyes always did speak volumes. She's marvelous as a mute midwife who doesn't need sign language to convey her fear or determination in Brimstone, a Western mystery/thriller that wants to portray women's lack of power in the Old West but ultimately becomes repetitive.
What seems like an unnecessary trip to catch up with a bunch of Scottish heroin addicts turns poignant and funny in T2 Trainspotting, a study in friendship, regrets, and the people we love who drive us crazy. The original Trainspotting in 1996 was an acquired taste that nonetheless hit audiences with a jolt of youthful exuberance and jittery energy.
La La Land is more of a musical mashup than a straightforward musical. Through its songs, its wardrobe, and even its palette, it's an affectionate homage to the pas de deux in classics like An American in Paris or Singin' in the Rain. Yet this nostalgic cocktail contains a contemporary twist, making it go down bittersweet.
Stop me if you've heard this one: A hodgepodge of people encounters something that they investigate further, only to be picked off one by one.
Keanu Reeves returns as the titular protagonist, a retired hit man who just wants to grieve in peace. Everything except for Keanu Reeves's emoting gets kicked up a notch in John Wick: Chapter 2, a sequel to 2014's surprise action hit about a retired hit man who just wants to grieve in peace.
Mel Gibson returns to directing after a ten-year hiatus with Hacksaw Ridge, a fact-based story of faith and violence surrounding a US Army medic who singlehandedly saved 75 men during the Battle of Okinawa without firing a single shot. Former Amazing Spider-Man Andrew Garfield, last seen in the 2014 indie drama 99 Homes, stars as Desmond T. Doss...
Arrival, a cerebral wonder of a film, is as much about stories and how we view the ones in our lives as it is about making alien contact. Like the best science fiction, it takes an extraordinary experience -- the arrival of a dozen spaceships around the world -- and relates it on an intimate scale.
Reporters and cops have more in common than they realize, a source told me when I was a crime journalist. Both consider their jobs a calling, and both think they're on the side of the angels. Whatever angels and callings are in the film Spotlight, none are explicitly stated.
With Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice behind us and X-Men: Apocalypse looming, some moviegoers might wonder why this year our superheroes can't all get along. Civil War shows why. This is a movie about actions and consequences. Perception and reality. Regret over roads not taken and guilt over the ones that were.
The considerable charisma and chemistry of Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence keep the sci-fi adventure Passengers afloat, even if the script easily fixes its most fascinating problems. On the surface, a story about two travelers who awaken hypersleep from almost 90 years too early on the way to colonize another planet is rife with intrigue.
The first few minutes of Star Wars: The Force Awakens unspool like a matching game with the 1977 original: Here's a crucial piece of information smuggled into a droid, this time an orb named BB-8 instead of the barrel-like R2-D2 -- and by a hotshot Rebel pilot instead of a princess.
A person in silver walks on black soil, precariously close to a raging red river of lava -- a shot that would be at home in any science-fiction film. Yet this spectacular sight comes from an active volcano on Earth in acclaimed director Werner Herzog's latest documentary, Into the Inferno, a film that meshes the wonder of science with the fascination and mysticism born from living so close to the fire.
Opening on the golden sands of the Moroccan desert during World War II, Allied brings to mind Casablanca or The English Patient -- and that's the problem. It has the right look and certain elements of other wartime romances and espionage thrillers but ultimately seems more of a pastiche than a satisfying whole.