Mini Review: “The Barkley Marathons” (2015)

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“If you’re selected, you get a letter of condolences: sorry to inform you, you’ve been selected to run the Barkley.” – THE BARKLEY MARATHONS: THE RACE THAT EATS ITS YOUNG

So begins a fascinating documentary on a race you’ve probably never heard of: a trail run so difficult that so far, only 14 people have actually finished it. Over 100 miles, in 5 loops, with 54,200 feet (16,500 m) of accumulated vertical climb, no aid stations, no GPS allowed, and a map you’re only allowed to see before you head out. To prove you ran the route correctly, you have to find paperback books scattered along the trail, and bring back pages that correspond to your race number. The entry fee is $1.60, a license plate from your home state or country, and what the race organizer needs that year: white socks, flannel shirts.

That’s not the weirdest part.

The course changes a little each year, and as one contestant said, to understand the directions you need to know the history of Cantrell’s directions for previous races. More than 30 people have given up before they even reached the end of the first two miles.

Co-Creator Gary Cantrell founded it after hearing about James Earl Ray’s prison break, but not as an homage to Ray; he heard Ray only got 8 miles after being in the woods for 55 hours, and thought he could do better. Each year, dozens of the world’s top ultramarathoners gather to prove themselves better than Ray too – to officially complete the race, all 100+ miles have to be finished in less than 60 hours.

It gets weirder, still.

You have to write an essay to even be considered.

I don’t want to give away all of the movie’s secrets, but it’s certainly worth watching, especially for fans of running, extreme sports, the depths of personal willpower, and anyone who’s ever planning to write a story in which a character has to escape through tough terrain. It made me feel like a slacker for not even trying to add a little running to my regular walking routine, so I’m doing that now – but on the other hand, since I’ve watched it, I feel like a hero whenever I get more than 2 miles.

I at least have the power to do that.

4/5*

Available on Netflix

Mini Review: “Twinsters” (2015)

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What if your identical twin sister sent you a Facebook message, and until then, you hadn’t known she existed? This is the story of two young women who met online. And a story of adoption. And a story of South Korea.

What started out as a cute story told with tweets, Skype, and emoji, turns into the exploration of two girls raised differently but with such complete love that finding another one of them was universally met with joy from their families and friends. I can’t imagine being so loved that if your parents found a second one of you, they would be thrilled, and welcome your twin as a second child, but this movie makes you happy for these adorable women, who literally traveled the world to find each other.

With the joy, comes the bittersweet. Not only do we see the impossible ways these two, raised on different continents, are alike, we also see how they’re not, contrasting the twin with adopted siblings – who grew up gregarious and brave – against the one who grew up feeling isolated, her whole life, even with all the love and opportunity her parents gave her. Her hesitation, her slow blossoming, into someone who maybe, sort of, might be ready to accept she isn’t alone after all.

Finally, South Korea. The movie ends with a chance to go “home” again, and unanswered questions, and the feeling of being a part of something larger than even together they had ever imagined. It’s a perfectly wistful note to close out the film.

Recommended for anyone who wants more empathy, more understanding, of what it’s like to be a sister, an only child, an adoptee, a person of color with white parents, unwanted, adored, lost, and found.

5/5*

Available on  Netflix

Mini Review: “An Honest Liar” (2014)

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This documentary about James Randi – former magician, escape artist, and professional skeptic – makes a big deal out of a small thing, and nearly loses its focus in the process, but is good overall. I’ll get the “shocking” bit out of the way up front: the filmmakers are caught up in presenting Randi’s long-time relationship as if viewers will be aghast at the revelations, oh my! But really, it’s all exposed and resolved in the end, and was nothing as interesting as the bulk of the movie, which focuses on Randi’s life as a magician, and then later as a skeptical con man.

Randi has to be given most of the credit for the film, not just in being an intriguing subject, but the way he presented his whole life, openly, talking about his sexuality, history, beliefs, and tricks. I learned a lot about Randi’s investigations, including things I’d never heard before about his feud with “mentalist” Uri Geller, his investigation into faith healer Peter Popoff, and just how far he went to infiltrate a famous university study of psychic abilities.

This is the perfect sort of movie to watch while multitasking – you don’t need to keep your eyes on the screen every second, but you’ll learn enough to make the time spent worthwhile. Plus, there’s cameos from Alice Cooper, Bill Nye, Adam Savage, Penn Jillette, and many others.

4/5*

Available on Netflix

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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Coming Soon, The Battle Royale Slam Book! Or, where I attack the idea of “anti-feminist” with a machete.

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Synopsis: 

Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale is an international best seller, the basis of the cult film, and the inspiration for a popular manga. And fifteen years after its initial release,Battle Royale remains a controversial pop culture phenomenon.

Join New York Times best-selling author John Skipp, Batman screenwriter Sam Hamm, Philip K. Dick Award-nominated novelist Toh EnJoe, and an array of writers, scholars, and fans in discussing girl power, firepower, professional wrestling, bad movies, the survival chances of Hollywood’s leading teen icons in a battle royale, and so much more! (Table of Contents here.)

… See that bit in the blurb about “girl power”? Yeah, that’s me.

My essay, “Girl Power”, is part of this collection and I am incredibly thrilled to be there. I’d been wanting to get back to academic writing for a while, I’ve been a fan of the story for years, I studied filmmaking and film criticism – particularly in regards to Japanese cinema – so when I heard that editor Nick Mamatas was looking for a few more essays, my hand shot up so fast you all probably heard the accompanying sonic boom.

He ran down the list of subjects already taken, and I immediate noticed the big empty space where I could make myself comfortable: a review and refusal of the “anti-feminist” label so often applied to the film, and (less often) the print versions of Battle Royale. See, this story is about teenagers, and half of the kids are girls, and they’re fighting and fucking and murdering each other, so doesn’t it have to be bad? It is a horror show. We know how those end up… meaning that the girls in this tale must not have any power or agency at all, right?

Wrong.

Sure, one the people who survives to the end is a boy, but the other one is a girl. The bad kids have a couple of slasher psychopaths and one of the most vicious? She’s a girl, too. And while they do spend the typical amount of time being catty and stealing each other’s boyfriends, the schoolgirls of Class 3-B don’t do it because they have nothing better to do. They do it because they recognize who’s got the power in their society, and they’ll do what it takes to get that power for themselves. Unlike Katniss or Bella or Babydoll, these girls make choices that directly affect their fates. Just because they’re splattered with blood at the time, doesn’t take away from their agency.

These girls are clever, resilient, independent, loving, insightful, maternal, vindictive, strong, and terrifying, when they choose to be. What could be more powerful than that?

Want to read the essay? Pre-order the book here.

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“Give Me The Banjo” 2011

I like a lot of different kinds of music. Different styles for different moods. In general, though, I like my piano lively instead ponderous, prefer fiddle music to violin classics. And a fine trumpet player has always moved me. While the banjo doesn’t catch my breath in the same way, I always thought of it as a fun instrument. Quick and clever, requiring a lot of skill and dexterity–I appreciate the technique. Plus I grew up with a fair amount of bluegrass; one of my mom’s best friends was, and still is, a bluegrass fiddler (you can watch a video of her band here).

So when I saw that “Give Me The Banjo” was streaming on Netflix, I threw it on. I am a sucker for both documentaries and American music history. Background music, I thought, while I got other things done. It turned out to be too good to half-watch, and I ended up putting everything else aside. 6 minutes into the movie, it was clear that they meant to truly explore the banjo’s history, with this introduction:

You can’t talk about the history of the banjo if you can’t talk about racism, slavery, misogyny, appropriation, exploitation–all of the things that run counter to what we love about the banjo. – Greg Adams, Ethnomusicologist

Then straight into clips from a minstrel show. Blackface. Newspapers proclaiming a “Much-Admired Nigger Melodist” was playing. The white Southerner, Joe Sweeney, who learned the banjo from his black neighbor, and then took both the knowledge of how to build one and his neighbor’s music with him to New York. Turning an African folk instrument into a white American musical staple. “Elevating” the instrument with fancier building designs, reinventing the music into the new “classic” style… purposely reminding audiences that they’d stolen from the people they considered themselves better than, with a style of music they called “Coon Songs”… This look at the past is simultaneously embarrassing and enlightening.

The interviews with experts–historians, musicians, and banjo builders–along with photos, songbooks, and recordings of the popular musicians from different eras, make this a documentary worth watching if you care at all about musical history, or the racial and cultural history of the US. (Even if the banjo itself doesn’t matter to you.) Steve Martin gives excellent narration, and they’ve got an impressive breadth of interviewees. Find the movie here: Give Me the Banjo (83 min.)

Attack The Block: 10 Minutes In, Best Alien Invasion Movie Ever

I promised you a review of this film a few months ago, I know. If it makes you feel any better, I watched it again, just for you, to be sure that I felt the same way about it. That’s the kind of friend I am. Quick review: It’s the best alien invasion film I’ve ever seen.

Why? It’s ok. You can ask me that. Here’s the answer:

The film opens on a shot of the night sky, with a single star falling from the heavens, before panning down to reveal fireworks over London. The camera settles, not on the downtown, not on the homes of the wealthy, but on a tube station and a young white woman talking to her mother on her mobile while walking home past street vendors hawking flowers and vegetables. Her hat doesn’t match her coat that doesn’t match her pants and her scarf – well, let’s just assume that an elderly aunt knitted it for her and move on. Kids run down the street with sparklers, as the woman walks into a residential neighborhood with more graffiti than street lamps. A sudden burst of fireworks startles her but there’s no one behind her; she’s jumpy, though we don’t yet know why. She finishes her call with a plan to meet for Sunday dinner, and looks up to see her way blocked by a group of kids wearing dark-colored hoodies and bandanas over their faces. Crossing the street doesn’t stop them from surrounding her and mugging her. Suddenly that falling star is a meteor crashing into a car only a few feet away from them, and the invasion’s begun.

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More Movies from 2011 (Which I’ve Now Seen, in 2012)

My massive catch-up from the cinematic offerings of 2011 continues (click here for part 1 of my mini-reviews), mainly veering away from Hollywood and into the independents.

Thank the Elder Gods for that.

I love a good Hollywood action/adventure type flick as much as the next person – and being a comic book geek, it’s possible I like them even more than most. But as a writer I’m always, always, looking for the story in everything, and much of the mainstream offerings lack witty dialogue, charming character building, or even something as essential as a workable plot. When you take away the car crashes and super powers and music montages, and just show us some people talking their way through a story, we can see the writer at work. Those are the movies I prefer.

I did squeeze in two more Hollywood movies – the romcoms Crazy Stupid Love and Friends With Benefits – before slipping back into familiar territory with One Day, The Art Of Getting By, Beginners, and Another Earth. Continue reading

5 Movies I Didn’t See in 2011 (But Saw This Week)

I love movies. I love how a great director and great actors can take a script, which is just the skeleton of a story, and flesh it out with sets and sounds and camera movements and jump cuts to make emotions. Turning it into the warm body of a film, with strength and heart. When I was young I attended the Academy of Art in San Francisco, and worked on a degree in Screenwriting (with a minor in Cinematography), wrote a few films (and saw them produced), and learned a lot about the film-making process. Though I figured out that screenwriting was basically organizing thoughts and notes to create an outline for someone else to finish – and therefore not enough to keep me interested – I still use some of what I learned then in my writing now.

When I went to UPenn I studied mainly Art History – which is one of the best degrees for a writer in terms of teaching you about art, culture, history, and how to think – but I also got a chance to take a couple of film criticism classes. I loved them! I’ve done classes on Japanese film, both pre-WW2 and post, noir films, and adaptations, and those four classes together showed me most of what is being put back into (recycled, adapted, homage’d) modern movies. Over the years I have learned to write screenplays, see a script cinematically, and think critically about film. But the biggest thing that informs my view of film is that I have watched so many of them. I’ve even worked in movie theaters in order to have access to all the celluloid I want. This has led me to watch a lot less “Hollywood” blockbusters, because I can see the predecessors in the work. Which is to say that I’ve watched enough classic, indie, and foreign films to know all the myriad ways that Hollywood is ripping them off. Why pay to see what’s already been done, and often done better, by someone else?

I ended up only seeing one movie in theaters in all of 2011, my all time low. I saw Contagion, which was wonderful, and that was it. This had, honestly, more to do with my year than with what was available, and so I started off 2012 by renting a handful of “hit” movies that I actually had wanted to see. In the last three days I have watched the final Harry Potter film, Super 8, Captain America, Thor, and Fright Night. What did I think?

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