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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“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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5 (or 6) Smartly Written Films I Think You Should Watch

I do watch a lot of movies. Much more than television shows, because of a combination of not having cable and not being a big fan of American television. Since I live in America, this limits my options. Besides, I don’t have time to watch both TV and movies too, what with the having a medium-sized child, a burgeoning writing career, my own (nascent and very much needing my attention) publishing company, and a pressing need to sleep once in a while. Though I sometimes enjoy some mindless fun, I prefer movies with great writing to those with great big explosions. I love documentaries! I like British movies and indie movies and old movies where the dialogue was what carried the film along. I like movies which are quotable and memorable and evocative and witty. In no particular order, the five* most well-written movies I can think of at the moment:

1. Network –

Network is a 1976 American satirical film released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer about a fictional television network, Union Broadcasting System (UBS), and its struggle with poor ratings. The film was written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet. It stars Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch and Robert Duvall and features Wesley Addy, Ned Beatty, and Beatrice Straight. – From Wikipedia

I first saw this when I was teenager, and I loved the dialogue. The conversations were intelligent, dry, yet still funny in many places, and I remember thinking that this is what grown-ups should sound like when they talk. Sadly, I grew up to find that not everyone was so quick with the witty reply, but it still stuck with me. It also made me look critically at every aspect of television,  and was the first point where I remember that I realized that even the news was a product, for sale:

Nelson Chaney: All I know is that this violates every canon of respectable broadcasting.

Frank Hackett: We’re not a respectable network. We’re a whorehouse network, and we have to take whatever we can get.

Nelson Chaney: Well, I don’t want any part of it. I don’t fancy myself the president of a whorehouse.

Frank Hackett: That’s very commendable of you, Nelson. Now sit down. Your indignation is duly noted; you can always resign tomorrow.

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Your Book Synopsis Should Never Be This Bad

Searching through my Netflix instant viewing options, I was struck by the similarities between a movie blurb and a book blurb. When we’re pitching our novels, especially in person, we often have to be able to explain our brilliance in only a few sentences. Even when talking about our work with other writers, it’s helpful to be able to give a quick “this is my book” speech. Reading movie blurbs can help give us a sense of what works, and what doesn’t.

Below are some of my favorite bizarre, disturbing, and completely unnapealing choices:

MUTANT HUNT, 1987. “When a corporate executive named Z comes morally unhinged and unleashes an army of cyborg robots on an unsuspecting New York City, there’s a lone mercenary who can save the Big Apple from complete and total annihilation.” What is it? Are they mutants, or cyborgs, or robots? Pick one!

NARCOSYS, 2000. “The world is ruled by the heartless IT Corporation, which controls citizens through manufactured drugs and a destructive virus that’s spread through the streets. Can a gang of cyber-punks stop the mammoth institution bent on domination?” Aside from the awful plot, the grammar makes this blur read like there’s a diseased street out there, citizens, so watch where you step!

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It’s the wisdom of our elders, so listen up.

Over the last three weekends I’ve seen three different documentaries about famous writers. Done in dissimilar styles, I think all three were worth watching.

The first one was two weeks ago. I watched PUBLIC SPEAKING, a documentary about Fran Lebowitz, which was directed by Martin Scorsese and put out in 2010. It’s primarily a conversation with Lebowitz, interspersed with a few clips of speeches or performances of people she found inspiring. I love that sort of context, uncovering pieces of the foundation that makes a writer’s perspective and language and education. I know I am made up of the writers I associate with, the books I have read, the stories I’ve been told over a cold beer in a hot bar right before last call. We’re all a collection of our bits. Lebowitz makes no apologies or excuses for her opinions and why should she? She’s brilliant, insightful, funny and above all appreciates brilliance in others. My kind of person. I would happily spend an evening handing Lebowitz cigarettes and refreshing her drink as long as she kept talking.

Last weekend I watched Harlan Ellison’s DREAMS WITH SHARP TEETH. Directed by Erik Nelson, put out in 2008, it’s a mix of Ellison’s cheerfully sharp ramblings and interviews with his friends, which includes Robin Williams and Neil Gaiman. Harlan’s got a nasty reputation but oh the man can write. Talking the documentary over with a friend, the question came up: does his writing excuse his being an ass? I think that no one is strictly one thing, and Ellison is clearly a nuanced character with a history and a sense of humor and a comfortable familiarity with his role as a “cranky old Jew” (as Gaiman keeps pointing out). Still, does his writing excuse his behavior? I think it doesn’t matter what I think of the man. I doubt very much he would care. What will endure, after he’s gone, after we’re all gone, is his writing, and his writing is brilliant.

This weekend I learned something completely new. I watched TRUMBO, a documentary about Dalton Trumbo, award-winning Hollywood screenwriter and member of the Hollywood Ten, a group of writers blacklisted in the 1950s. I admit, I didn’t really know who he was before this. Put out in 2007, it includes some footage of Trumbo himself, some interviews with the children of his friends, but also the most beautiful readings of his personal letters. Trumbo was fabulously prolific, writing novels, screenplays, and thousands of these letters, which have since been archived. Famous actors (Joan Allen, Brian Dennehy, Paul Giamatti, David Strathairn, Donald Sutherland) lend their voices to Trumbo’s 2 am missives to friends and family, musings on his political and economic situation, and even a couple of snarky letters to the phone company over the price of their intercom systems. There’s another about masturbation, but you’ve got to hear that for yourself.

In all three cases we’ve got smart, sharp, witty, individuals, unafraid to be themselves, who’ve had their lives strongly affected by that bravery. I think this, more than anything else, makes a writer unforgettable.

Be bold, young writers. Learn from your elders (and maybe even from me). Be who you want to be. Be kind, be thoughtful, but be bold. Write stories that speak about something you think is important. Bring to life characters that live their lives, deeply, fiercely. Frankly, don’t be boring, don’t be dull, don’t be afraid. What good is that going to do you? Fear keeps us in dead-end jobs, bad relationships, makes us stay friends with people we outgrew twenty-years ago just because there’s safety in numbers. Be like Fran, and respect art, respect genius, respect real individuals. Be like Harlan, and be unafraid to be brilliant, and to demand that the people around you are also living up to their potential. Be like Dalton, and stand up for your beliefs.

And above all, keep writing.