Robert McKee, noted screenwriting guru, may have been immortalized in the Spike Jonze-Charlie Kaufman joint “Adaptation,” in which he was played by Brian Cox. But he was already a legend. Among aspiring screenwriters and wet-eared film students — and sometimes irritated cinephiles — his name is as (in)famous as that of Syd Field, the late author of how-to tomes like “Screenplay,” which try to give the art of movie-writing its own instruction manual.
Well, now McKee is a movie reviewer, too. On his site, the teacher — whose seminars are packed with those desperate to break into one of the least glamorous and rewarding parts of Hollywood — has recently been writing pieces on last year’s films, most of them titles currently nominated for Oscars. Short version: He liked “Brooklyn,” “The Revenant,” "The Big Short,", "Spy," “Wild Tales,” “Trainwreck” and (with minor grumbling) “Inside Out.” (That latter has the "most effective use of allegory since George Orwell’s 'Animal Farm'" — !!) He did not like “Carol,” “Spotlight” or “Room,” each of which he said “doesn't work.”
Each review is for the most part filtered through McKee’s philosophy about movies, in which the screenplay is primary and the structure can generically be dubbed “classical.” He likes empathetic protagonists fighting against odds or maturing; he dislikes experimental structures, as in “Room,” or films that, as he asserts about “Carol,” become too much about a hot topic. “Spotlight,” he suggests, shouldn’t have focused on the gruntwork of journalism but on the prosecuting lawyers, because that would have been more emotional. (This observation is almost as misguided as “Spotlight” director Tom McCarthy’s other 2015 film, “The Cobbler.”)
McKee also disapproves of flashy cinematography, which he claims mars “Carol.” Ed Lachman’s camerawork too often, he argues, films characters through windows or through bar-like structures to show their feeling of imprisonment. “Anytime you come out of a film thinking the thought ‘Beautifully photographed,’ the film has, in fact, failed,” he crows.
It’s de rigueur among weathered film snobs to roll eyes at McKee and his impossibly rigid rules for filmmaking, and not without good reason: It’s not that he’s old school, but that he’s disinterested, if not actively hostile, to diversity in filmmaking. He believes in film as storytelling first and foremost, which fair enough; most moviegoers would agree with him.