Mini Review: “World of Tomorrow” (2015)

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World of Tomorrow is only 16 minutes long. It’s been nominated for an Oscar, won more than 40 film festival awards, including the Grand Jury Prize for Short Film at Sundance Film Festival, and Best Animated Short at SXSW. I’d be surprised if it’s not at least nominated for some of our genre awards (I put it on my Hugo list, for example). Created entirely by Don Hertzfeld, it takes science fiction staples – cloning, time travel, space travel, singularity, robots, and aliens – as fact, and then uses that backdrop to tell a dark but loving story focused entirely on humanity. The shiny scifi bits exist but don’t matter nearly as much as one woman talking to one little girl about everything that gave her life meaning.

The animation has been called “avant-garde”, but though I liked it, it didn’t seem that far out of the realm of what’s been done before. It suits the story, which matters; the voice actors are also perfect, and in fact, Hertzfeld recorded his four-year-old niece while she was playing, and then edited her into the film as the main character’s younger self.

World of Tomorrow is excellent storytelling, and is a spot-on example of how I like my fiction: character-driven, a little bleak, a little frightening, fully aware of our own mortality, but hopeful, too. What is it to be alive? What makes you, you? Hope isn’t granted without working for it, and love isn’t free,  but if you live every day the best that you can, at the end, you’ll have had a full life.

5/5*

Watch it on Netflix or Vimeo.

 

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.

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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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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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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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