5 features that make a movie or TV show great


In this day and age of superhero movies, I’m going to dare to give you guidelines on how to judge the quality of a movie. Great movies don’t make money, this is a fact. The reason commonly given is the populace is too dumb and unsophisticated to appreciate their merits. I don’t want to go into this discussion as it spills way beyond the scope of this humble post. However, the opposite is not true either: don’t think that just because a movie delivered a poor box office it deserves any praise. It may be simply because…well…it’s crap. Good movies usually:

1. Focus on character not on plot. Despite the well-known structure of storytelling dug out by mythologist Joseph Campbell and turned into a simplified manual for Hollywood scriptwriters, spelling out all the steps that need to be present in the hero’s journey for a story to resonate with the audience, writers and directors still need to highlight characters. The plot needs to be there, its phases followed in new and  creative ways, but strong characters are what we remember about the best films we see. We may not remember details of the story, but Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone in the Godfather, Robert De Niro’s Trevis Bickle in Taxi Driver or Robin Wright’s Claire Underwood in House of Cards  are unforgettable.

Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone

Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone

2. Have complex characters. These great characters have the following common characteristics: they don’t comply to black and white codes of ethics, they tend to develop their own morality and follow it consistently; they show either superior intelligence, or charisma or beauty. Or all of them together. Understatement is their main weapon. They do not say everything: a lot needs to be inferred by their eyes, their turn of head, they way their mouths hang open for slightly longer than necessary. They are subtle and complex. We never get to understand their inner agenda to the full.

3. Have scenes played against the grain. Great movies catch the audience off guard, surprise them. They use, for example, as the commentary for a acene, a song  or piece of music that means its exact opposite or that does not belong to the historic period or place the story takes place. The use of LA CUMPARCITA in Woody Allen’s  Alice,  which takes place in contemporary Manhattan – the music plays as Mia Farrow’s and Joe Mantegna’s characters, after taking a magic potion that makes them invisible, pay the taxi driver and the doors of the car open for them to leave completely unseen; the voice over quips: “nothing shocks NYC cab drivers”  – enhances and adds to the humor and oddity of the situation.

Mia Farow as Woody Allen's Alice

Mia Farow as Woody Allen’s Alice

4. Let emotions emerge naturally. These movies do not manipulate their audience to make them weep. Sentimentality makes films that could otherwise be great syrupy and corny. Emotions must reflect real life and its poignancy to work as art. Think of the scene in Walter Salles’s Central Station in  which the character played by Fernanda Montenegro is shown, in a montage, writing a series of letters to relatives of people who are illiterate and therefore can’t write themselves. They are real people in this particular case  – but might as well be actors – from a small city in the northeast of Brazil, and the succession of short scenes showing these people dictating their messages breaks ones’ heart with their truth, simplicity and beauty.

Fernanda Montenegro in  Walter Salles's Central Station

Fernanda Montenegro in Walter Salles’s Central Station

5. Don’t show or say everything.  Life is not neat. Great movies reflect life yet show it through a more interesting angle. But not all must be solved in those two hours a movie lasts. Life is a flow and conflicts are rarely resolved in their entirety. There is no need to explain every character’s motives or reactions or  tie all the loose ends of the story by the conclusion of the movie or TV show. Let the audience wonder. Give them opportunity to use their imagination. Take the typical end of the iconic 2001 a Space Odyssey. If you haven’t read the book, and there’s no need to (it was written to go with the movie), the last 15 min of the movie are all up to you. What is going on? What does that trip to Saturn really mean metaphysically? What’s this guy shown in progressive stages of aging. Who’s this fetus in the intergalactic womb? The viewer will keep those images for a long time in their minds (in my case,  for decades!) and neve stop trying to figure them out.

2001 A Space Odissey

2001 A Space Odissey

Well, great movies are not supposed to follow recipes. So now throw all I said before out of the window and make your own rules.

Good luck

Jorge Sette.

13 Business Lessons from House of Cards


Apply the rules below at your own discretion in the workplace. The author assumes no responsibility for the consequences, although he is 99% sure they will help you climb the corporate ladder faster.

House of Cards - Netflix.

House of Cards – Netflix.

1. There is no difference between business and politics. Corporations are like the National Congress.

2. Crush your opponents again and again  (competition or coworkers). And yet again. But if they survive, align with them.

3. Keep your self-control. No shouting matches are allowed in public. Keep a perpetual fake smile on your face no matter what. There is sex, drugs and cigarettes to drown your misery at night. Use them in moderation.

4. Get married and have a big family. There is no way a single, childless person can prove their love and care for the constituents (or customers).

5. Lie, lie, lie. And lie once more. Do not commit to anything as far as possible. Then tell the truth, when you are out of danger and no one expects you to: now you become a hero.

6. If you are writing  a contract or some other kind of written document: make sure you get legal advice to make the language as vague as possible to allow for leeway and future changes.

7. Distance yourself as much as you can from the weak and broken. Discard them.

8. Involve your security personnel as much as you can. Get close. Have sex with them and your spouse together to tighten the relationship.

9. Unlike the common thought, intelligent people understand that being gay is not a personal choice and they couldn’t care less about who people go to bed with. However, play to your audience’s tastes and ignorance. If they hate gays, you must hate them too. And mean it. Typical doublethink tactic from Orwell’s 1984: study it.

10. Give condoms as a gift to whoever is sleeping with your husband. You don’t want him to financially support the bastard.

11. Eat ribs at shoddy joints.

12. Play the feminist card whenever you run out of options. “It’s because I’m a woman, right?”

13. Have Robin Wright on your side and get her to love you.

Good luck

Jorge Sette

Why is TV becoming better than the movies?


It all started when a mob family guy began to have panic attacks after a flock of ducks flew away from his backyard  leaving him with an irreparable sense of loss and despair. He started seeing a psychiatrist. We also noticed an uncanny resemblance between the way he conducted his mob activities and the way big companies operate in the real world.  Was this possibly a metaphor of corporate America? Then there was the focus on his family – unusual in mafia movies (except for The Godfather). We had hardly ever seen a mob wife on the small screen before, with all the details of her lifestyle, including a sense of how her ambition blinds her to the criminal work of her husband. As long as she is able to afford the nice house in the suburbs of Newark and the espresso machine, she is not complaining. If you add to these ingredients the fact the the husband is played by the ultra charismatic late actor James Gandolfini and the wife by the remarkable Edie Falco, you begin to understand why TV is changing into a medium of great content and art work. Of course I’m talking about The Sopranos in this case, the show that basically changed the way cable TV producers, liberated from the pressure of sponsors, started to want to experiment with new formats. The revolution is continuing in streaming video now.

The new TV

The new TV

Almost ten years after the end of that seminal show, we have now an offer of excellent series and made-for-tv movies all over the place, competing in quality of content and presence of great actors in the cast. The bar is being raised continuously.  Movie stars don’t think twice before crossing the bridge to the former lower land of television, when the invitation is tempting enough. Some of them, such as academy-award winner Kevin Spacey even bring their own projects to new media channels (which is the case of the successful House of Cards on Netflix.)

I’ve always been a lover of the movies, but I must confess these days I’d much rather watch an episode of Downton Abbey or Mad Men from the comfort of my couch than struggle to park at the nearest mall to watch a superhero blockbuster or a silly Brazilian comedy on the big screen. Besides, there is the new pleasure of binge watching on weekends, that is, covering sometimes a whole season or two in less than 48 hours. I’m aware of the perils of addiction, don’t worry. Look at the tragic end that befell most of the Candy Crush Saga players…

I forced myself to think why it is that TV is so much better now. Could I pinpoint some of the main differences between Charlie’s Angels in the seventies and The Shield? They are both cop shows. Therefore, they’re basically about catching the bad guys, right? So what’s new? Well, for starters, the protagonists in the new shows are not saints, but multifaceted human beings. They all have a dark side and are badly flawed somehow, like the heroes of Greek tragedies. Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), one of the main characters in The Shield, for example, doesn’t think twice before partaking in the spoils of war the drug dealers he chases accumulate. Don Draper (Jon Hamm) of Mad Men has  a compulsive infidelity drive, despite the nice and caring women who love him. He also hides a dark secret from his past. Walter White (Bryan Cranston) from Breaking Bad or Dexter (Michael C. Hall) from the show of the same name are both hardcore criminals! Walter runs a meth lab and is the kingpin of an international drug operation. His family knows nothing about it at first, but then his wife gets coopted and starts working for her husband. Dexter carves his victims with sadistic pleasure: OK, they only get submitted to the horrific ritual if they’ve committed crimes themselves but then again… Nurse Jackie, also played beautifully by Edie Falco in the show of the same name, is a committed nurse, who loves and cares for her patients, always going the extra mile to help them. Only she has sex with a coworker, jeopardizing the stability of her nice family structure, to have access to the painkillers she is addicted to.

 The new TV

The new TV

In addition to the flawed heroes, you will notice that most of these shows are about ensembles. There’s of course the main hero and his journey, but all the other subplots are as interesting or sometimes even more enticing than the main one. Supporting roles are usually played by very accomplished actors, so even a small scene played by a guest star can be a little gem.

Last but not least, there is the superb writing. If movies are the domain of directors and producers, as they have total control over their work, TV or streaming video is the realm of writers. They run the show there.  And surely this is a very strong reason why plots, structure, dialogues, and subtext have gained a lot more prominence over their big screen counterparts. A lot is not said in these shows’s plots. The subtlety of the dialogues, the importance of silences and the facial expression of great actors add a lot to the the depth of a scene. Also, the fact that sometimes the storyline or specific scenes focus on very small things of everyday life, and yet highlight unusual details and reveal interesting motives of a character make for great entertainment: the theft of a bottle of wine by a gay footman (Downton Abbey) or the puberty troubles of a girl (Mad Men) add a lot to the attraction of a show,  illuminating areas of the human experience that in the past were limited to literature or art movies.

If you have not watched any of the shows we discussed above, I strongly recommend you have a go at them. Let us know what you think by sharing your thoughts in this space.

In the meantime, check out my Pinterest board on BEST TV SHOWS (click on the picture below):

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.

My 5 favorite TV villains and why I love them


Television is changing. Its shows, especially after the advent of HBO, Netflix and Showtime, are becoming more and more sophisticated and nuanced. I would  even dare to say that TV shows in general are a lot more fun than the average Hollywood movie, one reason being that they are shorter and therefore able to pack a lot more punch into their compressed 30 or 60 min length. Of course, you can, and probably will,  binge watch whole seasons of Breaking Bad on a single weekend, but the experience is usually more satisfying than spending 3 hours at the movie theater. I know, I’ve done it.

That’s why I’ve decided to narrow my choices and include only TV villains in this post. Maybe in the future I will have another go at it, and focus on the big screen baddies.

Here’s the list of my favorite TV villains. They are NOT listed in order of preference. All of them are contemporary, so the reader will hopefully know who I’m talking about. I also understand that my choices may not be terribly original, but I’m sure some of my reasons might surprise you.

1. Dexter Morgan (from Dexter): strong organizational skills, love of kids, sense of humor and irony are some of Dexter’s virtues I respect and relate to. He also cleans after himself and has an elegant method of avoiding leaving behind a messy crime scene. We could easily be flatmates. I also really like the cool thermal shirt he wears when he goes on killing jobs. I’ve been looking to buy one. I will have to lose a few pounds to fit into them though. Quote: “People fake a lot of human interactions, but I feel like I fake them all, and I fake them very well. That’s my burden, I guess.”

Dexter Morgan

Dexter Morgan

2. Frank Underwood (from House of Cards): yes, you love him too, I know. But I even love his wife better, she’s next on the list. Single-mindedness, strong sense of purpose, ability to focus and to design well thought-out strategies, in addition to a very keen sense of politics are all enviable treats of  Francis’s (as his wife calls him) personality. He is also a great reader of peoples’s feelings and emotions. He knows when to back off. Excellent at prioritizing his battles. Quote: “There are two kinds of pain. The sort of pain that makes you strong, or useless pain. The sort of pain that’s only suffering. I have no patience for useless things.”

Frank Underwood

Frank Underwood

3. Claire Underwood (from House of Cards): extremely beautiful, proving that you can still be stunning in maturity, Claire has a great sense of fashion and style. She also has total control over her feelings. Like Frank, she picks her battles carefully, has strategic vision, and doesn’t mind  being upstaged by her husband, as she knows she is really the boss. Besides, she goes jogging regularly: I wish I had that kind of determination. Quote: “Now tell me, am I really the sort of enemy you want to make?”

Claire Underwood

Claire Underwood

4. Walter White (from Breaking Bad): fearless trend-setter: he’s fifty years old and looks cool wearing only a long-sleeved green shirt, white underwear, socks and leather shoes. The ultimate entrepreneur.  Manages his business like a proper CEO. Highly intelligent. A perfectionist in every sense of the word: he is very proud of the purity of the the blueish product he puts out with the utmost care and dedication. I’ve read somewhere that watching the whole Breaking Bad series is equivalent to taking a business course at Harvard. I got my degree last month! Quote: “What I came to realize is that fear, that’s the worst of it. That’s the real enemy. So, get up, get out in the real world and you kick that bastard as hard you can right in the teeth.”

Walter White

Walter White

5. Bart Simpson (from The Simpsons): you may not even realize he’s a villain, but don’t be deceived by his innocent looks and strange feminine voice. Bart Simpson is evil. However, I like the fact that he is very cold in his decision making process, when necessary. Outcomes are what really matters for him. He’s great at practicing his calligraphy (at the beginning of every show you will always see him writing the same sentence – a different one per episode- on the blackboard hundreds of times). Take Steve Jobs, for instance: didn’t he study calligraphy and allegedly applied his knowledge in the making of the beautiful fonts available on the first Mac computers? So, Bart deserves brownie points for his efforts too. Another career option for Bart would obviously be teaching, given all this expertise handling the chalk (not sure if this will be a widely sought-after skill in the profession in the near future, though). Finally, he’s one of  the few major TV characters who tries to speak Spanish: ¡Ay, caramba! Quote: (to his sister Lisa) “You got the brains and talent to go as far as you want and when you do I’ll be right there to borrow money.

Bart Simpson

Bart Simpson

Well, I hope I’ve been persuasive in explaining why I love these guys. Now it’s your turn. Share with us the list of baddies you care about.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette