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.