Sunday, Briefly

Feeling: Like my old self again. AT LAST.

Doing: Catching up on all the things. Working overtime at the day job, teaching my Plotting workshop, and editing for freelance clients. Plus, started costumes for DragonCon…

Not sleeping enough still, but it’s getting better.

Listening to: Cassandra Wilson, BB King (may he rest in peace), Sinatra.

Watching: I saw…

Daawat-e-Ishq (2014) Indian film somewhat (self-referentially) in the Bollywood style. Cute, happy, gorgeous colors and a focus on food/cooking. At the same time, it dissects the very serious problem of arranged marriages, dowry, and independence. Bonus for looking at it not just as a problem for women, but also for men: young men from “better ” households are essentially auctioned off to the highest bidder — the girl whose family can pay the most in dowry (generally presented as “wedding gifts”, though agreed to in advance between the parents). Change comes as much from women saying “I deserve to be valued for who I am” as men saying “I am not an object to be purchased or sold; I deserve love, too”. 5/5*

Nightcrawler (2014) Props to Jake Gyllenhaal for throwing himself into the character; if you’ve never been in the presence of an extreme narcissist — not the charming kind, but the disaffected, disassociated, bordering on sociopath without realizing most everyone around them sees that is something is just “not right” — then this movie might be worth watching. I turned it off three times, kept turning it back on and then giving up again. The main character was simply and purely unlikable. He was a bad guy. He was cold, violent, a thief and a liar. He didn’t bother trying to pretend otherwise; he pursued what he wanted, as if he deserved it no matter who he hurt in the process of getting it. He had, potentially, a few redeeming qualities that you could maybe make out if you squint hard enough, but nothing to show that he was capable of any sort of arc. By the halfway point it in the movie it seemed clear that he was going to be the catalyst for bad things happening to other people, and if he did suffer any consequences, it wouldn’t change him, only be seen as another setback, until he could steal another chance at his American Dream. (I blame the writing/directing here, not the actors, who gave good performances in the limited way they were allowed.) 2/5*

Wayward Pines (ep 1) A dull, Twin Peaks-flavored show without an original bone in its body. Don’t bother with this one unless you’ve never ever seen or read anything about a small town that isn’t what it appears to be in the first ten seconds. (Though this show is obvious from about ten seconds in.) 1/5*

Maggie (2015) Subtle, understated, purposefully anticlimactic (to be discussed further) story about a dying girl in a zombie-infected America. Notable for its stars, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, who gives an excellent performance, even given that I was somewhat distracted by someone else cracking up over the incongruity of a couple of Arnold’s lines. I will probably review this in depth later, depending on whether Don gets there first. (You want his review, honestly. It will have a lot more sarcasm.) Worth watching, so go watch it. 5/5*

Reading: NOTHIN’ BUT BLUE SKIES. Non fiction, reading based on Don’s recommendation. Go read his review here.

Writing: … Nothing, lately. I wish, but there’s too much else to do. Some day soon, I will be able to afford to cut down on freelance work and set aside time for my own writing again. Until then, I’m sneaking in bits of writing time wherever I can, and the last few weeks, there hasn’t been an opportunity. I’m hoping to finish revising a story I wrote a couple of months ago, this week, if the day job isn’t too hectic. (Half our admin staff is out for training, I’ve had to give up lunch breaks and am working late on top of it, so it will just depend on how much paperwork gets dropped on my desk before everyone else returns.)

What are you into lately?

Monday, Briefly.

Feeling: Sick, tired, and tired of being sick. I’ve officially been unwell for an entire month now, between having strep, surgery (which caused a throat injury), throat infection, vertigo, steroid-induced insomnia, and now — because I wasn’t given antibiotics for long enough — acute bronchitis. Ironically, the “invasive head surgery” part seems to have gone perfectly, and if I hadn’t had the complications, I’d have been back on my feet weeks ago.

Doing: Very little. Anyone wondering if I’ve been lazy and/or procrastinating lately should reread the above. I am doing what I can every minute that I can — which is why this blog post was written at 3 am — and a few more things powered by sheer force of will, but I’m behind on a lot. If you’re waiting on me for something, I will get to it. Probably right after I get a full night’s sleep. Or at least, on a day that I can actually breathe.

Listening to: “Uptown Funk”, still, especially because I found out the glorious Dap Kings provided the horns for this song. Video here. It’s fun, it hearkens back to hate-era disco (as in “everyone hates disco”), it features Bruno Mars — who’s starting to impress me with his interest in reviving older musical styles within his largely pop playlist — and did I mention the horn section?

Watching: I saw

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (the first 45 minutes could have been 20, but otherwise, a better film than I expected, and cements Ben Stiller on my very short list of Hollywood celebrities I’d actually want to have a conversation with).

Gremlins, because my son had never seen it. A lot of the dark, campy humor was lost on him — and more noticeable to me than I’d remembered — but he liked Gizmo enough to want a T-shirt with him on it.

Big Hero Six, because my son actually asked if we could watch this, and he rarely likes age-appropriate stuff. (He’s all Blues Clues and Walking Dead. No, I don’t let him watch Walking Dead, outside of the zombie scenes.) It was fun, touching, and while it was limited to a very tight PoV and almost no one did anything important except the MC, all of that focus was on a bright, awkward, Asian kid who wasn’t treated like a minority, just a person, living in a multi ethnic world.

I’m still watching iZombie, Jane the Virgin, and Grimm, whenever there’s a new episode. Other stuff too, if someone else is or I’m really, really, bored, but those are the only three shows on TV that I’m not burnt out on or tired of hoping will improve.

Reading: started Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation.

Writing: Revising last week’s 1700 word SF story into about 2500, when I figured out there would be no character arc unless I added to the beginning. Also trying to finish a 750 word story for this (deadline 4/26/15).

What are you into lately?

Summer of Film, Part One (12 mini reviews)

I don’t watch much television, but between Netflix and having three theaters in town, I do see a lot of movies. I made an effort to get out and catch more indies and documentaries this summer, since that’s what I love most, but also branched out into mainstream titles based on YA novels (like How I Live Now, which I reviewed in July) that I normally would have avoided. Plus a couple of geek favorites, because fun is good. Here’s my (first of two) quick review of everything I can remember seeing:

  1. Chef – Might be my favorite fun movie of the summer. The characters were well-conceived and even with a few silly cameos, the whole thing felt solid, with nothing to pull you out of the story. And the soundtrack! Glorious. Will make you want to cook, dance, and love. There were other films that impacted me more, that I’ll carry with me for longer, but if you want entertaining, life affirming (in the sense that life is delicious and you need to go out and taste it), and a happy ending, this is the movie for you.
  2. Detropia – not the best documentary I’ve seen this summer (too long, a bit too disjointed to tell a coherent story) it’s nonetheless an important look at the failure of the American Dream on a massive scale. Detroit went from being the fastest growing city in the US to one that’s collapsed in on itself, in less than 100 years. Do you know why? The film offers an explanation, and the hope that where commerce has failed, art (and starving artists, and gentrification) might thrive.
  3. Divergent – (Based on a novel I haven’t read) Up until the end, I thought this was actually a much better film than I’d expected. Fun, quick, not terribly dumb. Reasonable post-apocalyptic society, realistic consequences for those that didn’t fit or couldn’t keep up, and it was solidly YA in that it focused on a main character who acted her age. There was no sex, no magic powers, nothing that threw you out of the story or the character… until the last 1//4 of the movie. Suddenly, logic goes out the window, and the last 120 seconds of the film is a complete 180 from the story so far. Unless there’s a sequel that shows that bit was all a ruse, and – wait, you know what? No. Not even then. The end was wrong for this movie. It breaks the promises the story makes to the reader at the very beginning. Watch it for a fast course in writing a YA story, with the understanding that the finale is what not to do.
  4. Finding Vivian Maier – Beautifully documented story of holding yourself back. (Resolved: I must stop doing that.) Up there with Jodorowski’s Dune as must-watch documentary of the year. Vivian Maier was a nanny of questionable origins with a deeply private secret – she was also a prolific and talented street photographer. A grad student discovered a box of her photos shortly after she died, and has dedicated himself to researching her, buying up her other work, showing her off to the public, and trying to get her recognized by the art institutions of the world. His journey to uncover the truth of Vivian Maier revealed a woman unknown by those closest to her, one who probably endured abuse and suffering as a child, and who never meant to hide her work for so long… but her own issues got in the way of pursuing a career as a photographer. The images Maier took are deeply moving, and so is this film.
  5. Godzilla (2014) – I am a sucker for all things Gojira. He’s my first kaiju, the one I grew up watching. I own the Gojira / Godzilla, King of the Monsters box set on DVD. I pine for the 1978 Mattel Shogun Godzilla I had when I was a little girl. So, even though I know that American-made Godzilla movies are embarrassingly bad, I will watch them anyway, if only because the 2 hours of suck is the price I have to pay for the 30 seconds of screaming Godzilla roar when the creature’s finally fully revealed. This one sucked less than the 1998 Matthew Broderick version, by an order of magnitude, but still suffers from being based in a very American PoV. The first 42 minutes of the movie set up the main character – who was nothing more than a minor player til then – as the reluctant hero, the American GI who can save us from the mistakes made by the Japanese scientific community. They quickly bring him up to speed, for no real reason (he doesn’t know anything about Godzilla or Mothra or… science… ) other than we need a white male hero, apparently. And there’s a ridiculous amount of stupid, like sending unshielded planes against a kaiju that they KNOW has EMP blast powers. And must we have the same exact “running from a tidal wave” scene in every disaster movie? (PoV: child looking back over dad’s shoulder, guy in car as feet run over his windshield just before the water hits, etc.) Good points: brief shout-out to the Philippines for being the birthplace of Mothra; couple of cute moments, like our hero’s childhood insect terrarium with “mothra” written on the side; some clear homages to 1950s US “giant radioactive monster” movies; halo drop onto Godzilla that was the best few seconds of the film.
  6. Guardians of the Galaxy – took my son to see this; (first movie we’d seen together in a theater in years, because he went through a phase where he was too hyper/bored to watch a whole movie at once, which he seems to be over). He liked Groot most of all; I think Drax and Rocket were my faves. By now you’ve probably seen all the tear downs of this movie, and I’d say they’re mostly right. Plus, it really is different from the comic. It’s fun, but you can’t expect too much out of it or think too hard while you’re watching it.
  7. Jodorowski’s Dune – Started with the documentary, Jodorowski’s Dune, then went back and watched (or rewatched) his films – Fando Y Lis, El Topo, Holy Montain, and Tusk, in that order. I’ll have to do a proper review of all the films together, but for now let me say that this is worth watching, more than once. I adored it, and I am one of those folks who actually knew/read/watched a lot of the work and artists it references. It’s breathtaking to see the expanse of Jodo’s vision, even as you realize how impossible it all was.
  8. Only Lovers Left Alive – I left the theater feeling that the more interesting story was the one told in between what was happening on screen. The film was beautiful, languid, well-acted, and deliciously slow in that way where it’s almost troubling, and you almost need it to speed up, but never quite slows too much to bear. It’s probably the best Jarmusch has done, and the actors were all perfect. But what makes it so wonderful is that the important bits – who made who, why, what kind of people they are and who’s the one behind it all – is never spoken aloud. We see that Swinton’s Eve is the collector, the one who doesn’t create anything on her own, the one in love with life and experience and beauty, but it’s Hiddleston’s Adam (and Hurt’s Marlowe and who knows how many countless others) who are the real artists, the ones she collects, and the ones who inevitably feel the decline and ennui that losing their mortality brings. By changing them into something she can hold on to, Eve is destroying what makes them fascinating, albeit very slowly. In that way, how is she any different from Ava, who takes what she wants and destroys much more quickly?
  9. Philomena – A character study that’s primarily interesting because the characters don’t change much at all from the beginning to the end, except that Coogan’s character softens a bit toward Dench’s, once he’s realized that he’s not doing her a favor so much as being allowed into the private revelations of a woman who was terribly wronged. Philomena was wronged, but can’t quit stop blaming herself, and Sixsmith does end up doing exactly what he sets out to do. Without growth, the story is a little boring — I admit I played a few rounds of “Pixel Dungeon” while watching it — but if you look at the movie’s poster and think “This is my sort of film” then it probably is. Most interesting, to me, was how easily everyone ignored or forgot the horrible way that unwed Irish mothers were treated in those days, and would still be, if it weren’t for the Internet and cell phones and other ways that news travels much faster. The Catholic Church systematically stole children from their (often) loving mothers, shamed the girls for the sin of having gotten pregnant, and sold — yes, for money — their babies right out of their arms. That’s how much power the Church has, that most people can say “well, that’s just how it was”. All of the drama in this story is in that erasure, and if you’re unfamiliar with it, then 2 hours watching Philomena isn’t a waste of time.
  10. The One I Love – How can I review a movie which requires that you don’t spoil any of it? I laughed, I enjoyed myself, I was probably less surprised by the end (because I know the Richard Matheson story this was probably inspired by) but even with that, the movie stuck the landing. It was exactly what it should be. It’s short, it doesn’t try to be more than it is, and if you enjoyed Safety Not Guaranteed, you’ll probably love this.
  11. Thor, The Dark World – If you’ve watched the rest of the new Marvel movies so far, there’s nothing in this to surprise you. Popcorn cinema: bright, shiny, fun, not deep, but hey, everyone in it is very pretty.
  12. Veronica Mars – I was a big fan of the tv show (watched it when it aired, plus a dozen rewatches since it hit Netflix) so I was looking forward to this, but still didn’t want to get my hopes up too high. The film didn’t disappoint. It was exactly what you would have expected, with all of the nostalgic moments you’d hoped for, and a huge number of appearances by now-famous actors who got their start as kids on the show. At the same time, it was darker and grittier than the original show, with more noir lighting choices and and overall message that says “you can never really get out”. Good people get hurt. The moments we want to see – resolutions, love, tenderness – come at a price, including disappointing those who wanted better for Veronica. It helps a lot if you’ve seen the show, but I think it’s a decent movie if you haven’t.

#SFWAPro

Movie review: FRANK (2014)

5/5*

FRANK is a brilliant, introspective, and illuminating film based partially on real events. It follows a bumbling, seemingly talentless, wanna-be musician (Jon) as he gets sucked into the world of a charismatic and mysterious Frank – a man with a paper mache mask for a head. At first, it seems Frank and his pals are the ones with the vision, and Jon is desperate to be someone more than who he is. He craves fame and respect and Frank, he is immediately sure, will help him get there. It quickly becomes obvious to the viewer what John doesn’t realize until later: Frank is severely mentally ill, along with at least a few of his bandmates. His genius isn’t in his wackiness, but is obscured by it; the sad truth is that Frank’s musical talent wasn’t set free by giving in to his illness, but his illness robbed him of the chance to truly express his talent. Outside of the carefully manufactured and strictly guarded world that Frank allows Jon to be a part of, the outside world – let in by John’s tweets and blog posts (part of his desire to connect with others and find his audience) – can clearly see what Jon doesn’t.

John think they’re making avant garde art. The world thinks they’re making a joke.

Warning: vague spoilers ahead Continue reading

What I’ve Been Watching: The Everybody Dies Edition

I haven’t done a movie review post lately, so this list covers a couple of months of watching. These should all still be available to watch streaming on Netflix and other services. As always, my reviews are mainly about the writing; though of course a film with a great script can still be shot poorly, the writing shines through, while a poorly-written script will still be obvious no matter how much money is thrown into the production. (See below, World War Z.)

Starting with the best:

 

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HOW I LIVE NOW, 2013. Saorse Ronan, Tom Holland, George MacKay. Director: Kevin MacDonald

5/5 stars.

Originally a novel by Meg Rosoff, published 2004 (winner: British Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and the American Printz Award for young-adult literature). I haven’t read the novel but from what I can tell, the movie doesn’t diverge from it much, only cutting out scenes/people to get it down to a 1h41m runtime.

This is a beautiful, haunting, and — most importantly — organically logical story of a teenage girl who naively chooses to stay in England on the eve of a war rather than go home to her American father and stepmother, who’d sent her away in the first place. It’s the story of kids who are left stranded when their mom gets called away and isn’t able to return, who are separated, conscripted, and ultimately have to fight their way back to each other. It’s about making a family, making choices, taking risks, and doing so while the adults around them either ignore what they need or actively try to hurt them.

The kids can’t possibly make all of the right choices, even though for a moment it seems they’ll be okay in their country home, away from the mess of the world. That summer paradise is ripped away by the advancing army, and serves as a dreamlike reminder of the innocent joy they’ll never have again. Truly, they never will: some of the kids are killed, and the rest are changed forever. Daisy, the MC, isn’t nice or likeable to begin with, but neither is she cruel. She’s an unhappy teenager, simple as that. She grows over the course of the film, becoming a mother and protector, but the change isn’t capricious. She fails in a lot of ways as she learns to get the important things right.

There are consequences to everyone’s actions. The characters have motivation and agency and needs, and while displayed subtly, they’re also obvious in the context of the story. The director manages to keep the pace moving without rushing too fast or dragging behind. There are no montages; there is nothing shown outside of the Daisy’s experience, yet the story is complete and bursting with detail. It’s tight 3rd person, excellently scripted, and I highly recommend it as an example of how YA storytelling should be done. I normally avoid anything with teenage main characters because it doesn’t speak to my life now, and I don’t get terribly nostalgic for my own past since what I have now is so much better. But I’ve seen this twice now, and would watch it again, because it’s not about “teenagers”. It’s about real, textured, people who just happen to be kids.

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