movies

I've been thinking about movies I've seen that really made me think about the writing process and the writing life and that I've learned something from. I thought I'd share the ones that struck a chord with me.

Adaptation (2002)

This is a fantastic semi-autobiographical tale about the film's writer, Charlie Kaufman, in his quest to adapt the book The Orchid Thief (by Susan Orlean) into a movie. The result is exactly what you see on screen in all its off-the-wall craziness, and it's phenomenal.

What you can learn: Everything you write is terrible and cliche and predictable. Your efforts are in vain. You will die lonely and miserable. But if you meet your deadlines, if you sweat and bleed and work your hardest, in the end, you'll have something beautiful and spectacular and complete. Passion is worth sacrificing for, and writing is no different. There are stories everywhere: start living them.

Also, Robert McKee is God.  (LANGUAGE WARNING)

 

Stranger Than Fiction (2006)

Will Ferrell is the unwitting hero in his own monotonous life who one day starts hearing a narrator tell his story. Emma Thompson is the author whose writer's block is the only thing that is keeping him from meeting an untimely death, and it's up to him to find her and change her mind about killing him off for the sake of her book.

What you can learn: Sometimes your characters will take on a life of their own. But that doesn't mean you get to go easy on them. Make them suffer. And be prepared to kill your babies.

 

The Shining (1980)

A family retreats to an old hotel for the winter. The father, a writer, is slowly driven to violence by an evil spirit that is also affecting his psychic son.

What you can learn: All Work And No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy. Get out of the house once in a while, especially if evil lurks there. You can't write in a vacuum and, let's face it, murdering your family is not going to help you sell your manuscript.


Misery (1990)

Stephen King takes two places on this list because, let's face it, he knows what he's talking about and has a knack for showing us the worst of the world.

A popular novelist is rescued by a fan (famously played by Kathy Bates) and forced to rewrite his manuscript to please her fandom mania.

What you can learn: If you're lucky to be a publishing phenomenon, you'll get fans. Lots of fans. Sometimes even crazy ones. Be prepared to deal with them. Maybe not like this, though. (EXTREME VIOLENCE CONTENT WARNING ON THAT YOUTUBE LINK.)

Got a film about writing you want to share? Leave a comment!

Sherlock Holmes 2: A Game of Shadows
Directed by Guy Ritchie
VVV 

Holmes faces off against his nemesis Professor Moriarty in this sequel starring Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law and Jared Harris as Moriarty. The plot is relatively simple with its various Doylesian twists, and the actors deftly portray the world's most famous detective and his sidekick. Though the aesthetic is bang on, the high-def motion capture cinematography pretty to look at and refreshing in that thank-god-this-isn't-Michael-Bay way, I wasn't absolutely enthralled. In the end, though, everything is nice to look at, and there's enough action and story to keep you awake. A good matinee flick for everyone.


Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Directed by Tomas Alfredson
VVV 

This Cold-War espionage flick based on a John le Carré novel stars a whole bunch of terrific actors, including Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Benedict Cumberbatch, and a bunch more. Oldman plays a veteran MI6 agent forced out of retirement to track down a mole within MI6's ranks. It's a long, slow, plodding kind of movie—you won't find any fast-paced chase scenes or heart-thudding action, but it suits the hold-your-breath mood of the period, and the film's crescendo pays off.


Haywire
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
VVV1/2 

Ever since I heard that former women's MMA champion Gina Carano would be starring in this flick alongside Channing Tatum, Ewan MacGregor, Michael Fassbender, Antonio Banderas and Michael Douglas, I was stoked to see what she could do. Carano's character, Mallory Kane, is a secret agent on the run after being set up by her former employer for the murder of a Chinese dissident. With the focus on her, it leaves the heavy hitters with very little to do, but that's the magic of this movie. With so many stars, Carano has her work cut out for her. But you root for her because she is a strong and capable woman surrounded by men conspiring to beat her down. She is the instant underdog who doesn't need to prove anything, but is going to anyway because—and here's the tagline—they left her no choice. If anyone else had played Mallory, this flick would have flopped.

Carano is brutal, unrelenting, and completely physical in this film. Every fight scene is genuine, with long shots and unflinching hits with plenty of nods to her Muay Thai and MMA training. It's very satisfying to see a woman who is strong and beautiful without being plastic or glamorous kick serious ass. I applaud Soderbergh for making this movie. Not once do you see Mallory pose, boobs and ass sticking out, wearing skimpy outfits or using her sexuality to get what she wants. She is smart, efficient, and goes after what she wants. No TSTL moments here. I would have liked to see more from the male characters (who doesn't want to see more Michael Fassbender?) and there isn't a lot in the way of character arcs or dialogue, but otherwise I enjoyed this film thoroughly.

Here's a great article about Carano.

 

The Muppets
Directed by James Bobin, 2011
VVVVV 

Even if your total exposure to the world of the Muppets has been in a few old reruns of The Muppet Show, this movie is fantastic. It's hilarious and heartachingly nostalgic, with exactly the right amount of schlock and zaniness. Jason Segel and the writing team did a bang-on job of recapturing what made the Muppets so special. Plenty of fan nods and celebrity appearances round off this perfect Muppet escapade. It doesn't get better than this.

 

There Will Be Blood
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007
VVV

I'm really late to the game with this flick, but I finally watched it on DVD. I really didn't get this movie. Daniel Day-Lewis puts on a terrific performance, there are a few interesting clashes between his character and his devout nemesis Eli--played creepily well by Paul Dano--and the cinematography and scenery is beautiful, but otherwise, I didn't feel like there was much to the story or characterization. I didn't care about Daniel's motives, didn't understand or perceive the changes to his character...didn't really care about anything. I kept waiting for the shoe to drop, and it didn't. There were no real stakes, as far as I could see, and the conflict was minimal. Overall, a bit of a disappointment. Not exactly cheery holiday viewing, either.

Conan the Barbarian
Directed by Marcus Nispel, 2011
VVV1/2

Jason Momoa's muscles star in this reboot of the classic Barbarian franchise penned by Robert E. Howard. The writing is...well, I'm not sure there was much writing involved. I could pretty much predict every single line out of Conan's mouth ("I don't want your gold...I want your head!") and though the field was left wide open for jokes, fandom nods and even--gasp!--character development, most of the film is devoted to a crimson-colored splish 'n' splash. There was a lot of fighting, and people in Conan's universe are apparently walking water balloons filled with blood. Blunt force trauma? BLAMO! Blood gush! Sword slice across the shoulder? SPLOOSH! Ruined your new armor! Got a paper cut? SANGUINE TSUNAMI! Rewrite that paper, Billy!

I did rate this above the critically acclaimed There Will Be Blood, however, because JASON MOMOA. ABS. RIPPLING TORSO. THOSE ARMS. THOSE EYEBROWS. With a special appearance by his shapely, muscly butt! (That alone should get people flocking to Netflix...)

Also, I've become a sucker for Stephen Lang, one of the only GPILFS on my list of Older Men I Might Procreate With If The World Ended.

 

It's been way too long since I've reviewed anything, so I'm going to throw a bunch on short summaries on some stuff I've read and watched lately.

Movies

Green Lantern
VV1/2

As much as I love Ryan Reynolds's abs and smile, this movie was terrible. Bad dialogue, shallow characterization...I just didn't know what to make of this film. I'm guessing there's more on the cutting room floor that might make it more palatable, but I can't recommend it...unless you want to have a drinking game where you take a shot every time you see Ryan Reynolds's dimples.

Captain America
VVVV 

On the superhero kick leading up to next year's Avengers, this origin movie featuring Nazis, little guys becoming big guys, and muscles doesn't get much better. Try not to think about the logic or physics, and you're going to have a lot of fun. Great performances by all, and Tommy Lee Jones steals the show.

Horrible Bosses
VV1/2

I barely remember what this movie was about. Revenge on bad bosses, hijinx go wrong...and that's about it. I think I laughed at a couple of places; it was fairly predictable, but a good rental. Or download for a quiet night in.

Books

The Hunger Games trilogy
by Suzanne Collins
VVVV1/2 

Fast-paced action, clean and simple but engrossing writing, terrific characters...I don't know why you haven't yet read these books. The Hunger Games (book 1) remains my favorite of the three, but the series holds up well as a full story. I'm looking forward with cautious optimism to the movie, slated for March 2012.

Tangled Past
by Leah Braemel
VVVV

I read Leah's first in this series, Texas Tangle, and this prequel holds up well. It's a Wild West frontier threesome, with a great story and steamy hot sex. Fun times!

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2
Directed by David Yates
VVV

As I write this review, I know I'll probably get flak for my lack of enthusiasm, my cynicism, my utterly meh opinion of this movie. But before anyone starts throwing cruciatus curses at me, let me start by saying this.

The Harry Potter movies aren't the greatest movies (ducks a fireball), but the stories are good stories and, more importantly, the franchise has raised an entire generation of readers and fans more devoted than any other series of books has ever produced. On this merit alone does the franchise earn at least four stars.

Down to the basics: HP 7.2 takes off where part one left off. There are chase scenes with lots of eye-popping 3-D graphics, epic battle scenes that look like a cross between The Lord of the Rings and Bedknobs and Broomsticks, loveable bumbling heroes, kissing scenes, Christ imagery...everything a good end to an epic should have.

For people who've read the books, boils down the original work as much as possible in order to wrap up all the loose ends in just over 2 hours. For non-HP fans, you'll follow along easily enough, assuming you've suspended disbelief over the past seven movies.

I don't need to say too much more because chances are you'll go see these movies regardless of what critics say. Let me be clear: it wasn't a bad movie. But it wasn't a great movie, either. What it was was the journey's end and we, as fans and viewers, had to see it through to the bittersweet end just as Harry did.

I've said this before: perhaps we've all grown up too much to feel the magic. In HP7.2, we're not given an opportunity to be surprised by this world anymore because, well, it wasn't the world we first walked into. It's terrifying and dreary, a wizarding world we really don't want to be in. The final battle lies ahead: we know we have to face all those characters we know and love, face inevitable losses and death and tragedy.

And yet, the tension of the inevitable face-off between the Boy Who Lived and You-Know-Who was completely missing. By the time Harry makes the decision to face Voldemort, I was pretty much yelling "Get it over with!" Not just because I knew what was going to happen, but also because I was bored by all the sitting and staring and exposition moments. And speaking of boredom, I think Voldemort stopped being scary right around the time we saw him with the evil league of evil having dinner at the Malfoys' dining table. How powerful can You-Know-Who possibly be if all he has are wand-waving goths around him doing his bidding? And how does Ralph Fiennes breathe with his nose smooshed down like that?

There are still great moments, and I admit, I cried a little. Alan Rickman's performance and flashback moments are the most touching in the series. And there is a huge sense of finality and loss in the end. We'll now be relegated to watching Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint in other roles now...or else fade into obscurity, tragedy, or worse...

More than a week later, I still can't quite articulate everything about what I did or did not like about this film. Perhaps I am still in shock that there won't be another HP film to look forward to.

Or perhaps I'm simply grateful it is all over, and now we can move on.

It was a tough long weekend for me, so hubby took me out to see two movies I've been aching to watch.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Directed by Rob Marshall
VVV

The latest installment of the POTC series...ah, you know what? I don't really need to talk about it. They're looking for the fountain of youth. There's maps, magic, ships, races, mermaid...all the quest needed was a big rolling rock and a bullwhip. Depp is his usual Jack Sparrow self; Geoffrey Rush is his usual Barbossa self; Penelope Cruz is a pretty throwaway character whose name escapes me; and Ian McShane as the dastardly Blackbeard is, well...appropriately piratical, but he'll never hold a candle to Bill Nighy's Davy Jones.

It's hard to be surprised by anything in this franchise anymore, and I think they exhausted their story arc and character development in the final act of the original trilogy. But regardless of what I say, people are going to flock to see this film, and I won't discourage it. It's fun, action-packed, and utterly mindless. The perfect summer brain sorbet, as long as you don't have high expectations.

 

Hanna
Directed by Joe Wright
VVVV

I only heard about this film through accolades on Twitter, so the film has word of mouth--or Tweet--to thank for me actually going to see this. The innocuous title and poster tell you nothing. In fact, it's a coming-of-age tale in which a teenage girl, raised her whole life in a remote cabin by her father, sets out to get revenge for her slain mother against the woman who killed her.

This could have easily been made into a crass Hollywood big-budget picture, but instead, it was a subtle, well thought out, well-captured look at an extraordinary girl trying to make it through an ordinary world. Saorise Ronan played her role adeptly, walking the fine line between innocent and creepy. Costars including Eric Bana, Cate Blanchett (who I kept thinking was a poor man's Cate Blanchett when in fact it really was her) and the talented Tom Hollander add a wonderful array of challenges for Hanna to overcome.

It's a very different kind of film, but it's smart and uplifting, with enough action and drama to go around. I'd call this the date movie of the summer--a film that everyone can enjoy without mindless eyeball surfing, unnecessary explosions or gratuitous gore.

Thor
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
VVV1/2

I consider myself a comic book nerd, but admittedly I haven't read any of the comic books featuring heroes from the Avengers team. Iron Man, Captain America, the Incredible Hulk...none of them every really appealed to me the way Marvel's X-Men or DC's Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman did.

Considering that superpowered god-like characters populate much of the DC universe, it's hard to figure out why I had such low interest in the son of Odin. Maybe it was the winged helmet, the girly locks of golden hair, the red cape that made him look fabulous is a way that really wasn't that flattering.

The movie version, however, distills the origin tale down to a palatable hero's journey. Branagh does an excellent job of presenting Thor to the audience in a perfect two-hour package that will lead into the Avengers movie quite smoothly.

Briefly: Thor is the heir to the throne of Asgard, another world ruled by viking-type people with crazy magic and science. His father, Odin, played by the venerable Anthony Hopkins, deems him unworthy and casts him out to exile on Earth. There, he meets scientist Jane, played by a charming-as-ever Natalie Portman, whose research into the phenomena that brought Thor to Earth has been confiscated by S.H.I.E.L.D. agents.

Some stuff happens, and there's lots of big fist fights, explosions, shiny teleportation, etc. It's not particularly complex, and you can pretty much tell who the bad guy is within the first five minutes. Like most superhero movies now, you can count on lots of action and a little melodrama. Actually, in Thor's case, there was lots of it, including the fall-to-your-knees, roar-at-the-sky bit that's a prerequisite of all dramatic comic book moments.

But that's half the beauty of this film. Chris Hemsworth does an excellent job of not taking himself too seriously in this role as the really unbelievable God of Thunder. I mean, seriously. He's a really, really, REALLY hot guy who swings a hammer and uses it to fly. Any minute now, you think he's going to turn to the camera and wink. If Branagh had tried to do this any other way, the movie would have been dull and stilted.

Overall, Thor was fun and worth the two hours it took. It will be interesting to see Hemsworth on screen with his fellow Avengers, and the franchise is sure to take off with all the effort they've put into the characters. If, of course, you don't like superhero movies... well, then, there's only one real reason to go see this film:

 

 

 

Rango (animated film)
Directed by Gore Verbinski
VVV1/2

Apparently, Westerns are becoming a thing for me.

Verbinski's animated feature Rango is fresh, fun and quirky. While a little drawn-out as many of Verbinski's works have been (see the first Pirates of the Caribbean), the film remains engaging enough to sustain an audience accustomed to slick, eye-popping computer animated films.

Johnny Depp voices a lonely, directionless, sheltered chameleon who by twists of fate is caught in a Wild West-style desert town populated by other talking animals. He takes on the name Rango and becomes town sheriff, trying to discover the mystery of the town's disappearing water supply.

What makes Rango interesting is that there are real moments of humanity displayed by each of the town's beastly CGI inhabitants. I will tip my hat to Verbinski for his method: instead of isolating the voice actors in sound studios, he had them all act out their roles as an ensemble line so that the artists would have character references and real human guides for actions and emotions. You can watch a demo on IMDB.

While the story is simple enough, and has a few similarities to the tale from Flushed Away, the character and set design is phenomenal, with a real worn-out, dried up feel to everything. The comedy is almost too subtle for a younger audience, but given the right mood, will probably make you laugh out loud. The action sequences leave you breathless--there were some especially good effects I could have sworn had been filmed live. Johnny Depp is as much a chameleon in this voice acting role as he is in all his films. You'd never know it was him if it hadn't been plastered all over the place.

The one drawback to this film is in Verbinski's meandering and sometimes unnecessary dialogue. He's got some great one liners ("That, sir, is what we call a mammogram!") and asides, but it detracts from the ongoing story, weighs down the action and makes severely emotional moments too unwieldy.

Even so, this was an enjoyable flick for adults and children, though you may want to leave the really young ones at home--a lot of them got restless fast on Friday night.

1 Comment

True Grit
Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
VVVV1/2

I've never really thought about whether I actually enjoy Westerns or not. Something about the Wild West has always struck me as one big cliche.

But the Coen Brothers' remake of True Grit, starring Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon, ascends cliche and satire somehow, driving this otherwise unremarkable tale with characters that make us both laugh and cry, even as they seem to be half a second away from looking into the camera and winking.

The story's quite simple: Determined fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross (played by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) hires U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Bridges) to hunt down the man who murdered her father. Also in pursuit of the fugitive is Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Damon). Misadventure, hilarity, and heart-wrenching drama ensue.

The Coen brothers do a phenomenal job of telling this story with their own quirky sense of humor. Why Hailee Steinfeld isn't on the marquis I do not understand, since the entire story is from her point of view and she does a bang-up job in the role. In fact, I'd almost say this was better as a young adult tale, full of adventure, personal growth and consequences.

Whether this film will garner any Oscars is up in the air; as a remake of an old John Wayne movie which was based on book, it's kind of hard to accept that the work is groundbreaking or fresh. But it was good. And it was totally worth watching.

Black Swan
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
VVVV1/2

It's not hard to see why Black Swan will be nominated for an Oscar in Best Picture and Best Lead Actress for Natalie Portman. Obsession, alienation, and the slow spiral into madness are all hallmarks of previous Oscar noms. It doesn't hurt that there's a lesbian sex scene involving Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman, either.

Briefly: Portman plays ballerina Nina Sayers, who is given the demanding role of the Swan Queen in a production of Swan Lake. The nearly virginal Nina struggles to embrace the dark side of her dual role of the black swan. She enters into a twisted relationship with Lily (Mila Kunis), a talented new ballerina who threatens to replace her in her highly coveted role. A demanding and deviant director and her overbearing former ballerina mother add to the pressures she places on herself to achieve perfection, and as opening night draws near, Nina slowly starts to lose her grasp of reality.

The direction and cinematography in this film was superb. From the cloying head shots to the jarring and sometimes nausea-inducing unsteady cam, this movie captured the ballerina's world view splendidly. The viewers were trapped in long shots of Portman's head, even as she performed, bringing the focus on her internal struggle rather than on the technical aspects of ballet.

Portman's performance is brilliant, her normally vibrant, strong-willed persona stashed away very effectively in her role as a woman-child buried by her own inhibitions and skewed ambition. She totally made me forget she was in those films we shall not speak of.

By the end of the second act, things start getting really trippy. I don't generally enjoy watching what I call "oogy movies"--you know, where you start to see things and wonder if YOU'RE the one who's going mad--and this was a real gut-twister of a head trip, but I still walked out of the film saying, "Yeah, even though I feel like I'm going to be sick, I enjoyed that."

I'm still feeling a little ill. In a good, I'm-going-to-have-nightmares-all-week kind of way, of course. But isn't that the stuff of Oscars?