Category: drama

Regarding JJ Abrams and Genre

I’m a big fan of JJ Abrams. I loved Alias (well, until it started getting ridiculous, at least), Lost (even the ending!), Super 8, both the new Star Treks, Fringe (though I have yet to finish the show), and I’m extremely excited for the upcoming Star Wars movie. JJ Abrams is certainly one of the current standard bearers when it comes to science fiction and geekdom. But I think one of the reasons he makes such good work is that he didn’t start by making movies with lots of explosions and special effects.

He started with movies like Regarding Henry.

That’s right, 25 years before he got to direct Harrison Ford as Han Solo, he got to write a drama about Harrison Ford overcoming a severe brain injury. He even got to share a scene with Han, though unfortunately I can’t find the clip online at the moment. He’s very clearly the food delivery boy in the movie.

Now, Regarding Henry isn’t viewed as one of the great movies of all time. It’s only got a 6.7 rating on IMDB, but Denisa and I watched it last night, and it’s certainly a very solid entry as a drama. I found it thought provoking and moving, with excellent acting by Ford and Annette Bening. It’s a very well put together movie that hits all the major beats and executes them very well. It’s  on the predictable side, but other than that, I really liked it. 8.5 out of 10.

One of the many ways geek movies can go wrong is when creators put the explosions and the special effects first, in front of plot, character, and emotion. Do that too much, and you end up with a hollow movie. The pieces don’t fit together quite right, and the motivations just seem to be missing. In other words, they focus too much on being science fiction and too little on being an actual movie or story.

Sometimes people ask me if I think it’s important for writers to get a degree in English or to get an MFA, and I typically say no. There’s nothing you can only learn in a writing program. That said, there are some things you still need to know, and those are things that are often taught in a writing program. So while they don’t have a monopoly in the field, they are an excellent vehicle to learn those elements. Structure, story, character development, theme, etc.

Having watched Regarding Henry, it’s clear to me why Abrams can be so successful as a science fiction director. He understands the fundamentals of drama and what motivates characters. With that as a foundation, it becomes much easier to add on the genre trappings. This isn’t to say you don’t need to understand the conventions of the genre you’re working in, but rather that there are some basic story conventions that span across all genres. Don’t get those down, and no amount of chase scenes or explosions are going to save you.

Anyway. Check out Regarding Henry if you haven’t. It’s a solid movie. Thoughts?

Quirky Movie Recommendation of the Week: Dean Spanley

Do you ever get tired of the same old movies, week after week? I don’t mean the same films. Rather, the same types. Boy meets girl. Buddy cop. Whodunnit. Biopic. After a while, they all start to blend together, don’t they? There are too many times that I have to admit I’ve seen a movie but can’t really remember what I thought about it. It’s gotten all mixed up with all the other movies in my head.

So it’s rare to find a movie that sticks out from the rest of the crowd. That’s truly different. Not in an artsy sort of way–it’s still intended for a wide audience. It’s just, the subject matter is so strange that you’ve never seen anything quite like it before.

Which brings us to my recommendation to you for movie watching this weekend. Dean Spanley. It’s on Netflix right this moment. It’s the sort of movie I would probably never have watched in a million years without Netflix. But the algorithm said I’d give it 5 stars, and I was in the mood for a 5 star sort of a film. (Sick all week, tired of being stuck in the house in bed, but not better yet.) I tend to trust that algorithm a fair bit, now that I’ve rated 2,231 movies through it. (Man–that’s getting up there? Anyone else want to let me know how many they’ve rated for comparison?)

What did I know about the film heading into it? Exactly what I’m going to tell you now: it’s about a man who goes with his father to hear a talk on reincarnation. And it’s a quirky comedy.

I don’t want to say much more than that, though there’s a lot I’d like to add. I just don’t want to risk spoiling anything about the movie for any of you who watch it. But here’s the deal–once you have watched it, please come back to leave a comment here or on Facebook. I’m really curious what other people will think about the movie. I know I can sometimes like movies a lot that other people find bizarre, and I’d love to chat with a few people about the movie.

I gave it 9/10 stars. It was thought provoking and interesting, though a tad slow in a few parts. It’s got a very nice performance by Peter O’Toole. Will you like it? Give it a shot and see. If you’re looking for quirky and different, drama and comedy, feel good and not too fast paced, you really can’t go wrong.

Plus, it was made by the UK and New Zealand. And I think we all know their track record when it comes to making movies.

Movie Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Let’s get one thing out in the open right away: I’m a Wes Anderson fan. Tenenbaums? Moonrise Kingdom? Mr. Fox? I love the look and style of his movies. How well each frame is arranged and thought through. So the fact that I loved The Grand Budapest Hotel shouldn’t really surprise anyone. But there’s one other thing to get out in the open quickly, as well: Anderson movies, while lovely and fun and interesting and artistic and thought provoking, also often have some content in them that will offend some. They’re often rated R. Not for pervasive sexuality or non-stop swearing. This isn’t Boogie Nights or Goodfellas, people. But there’ll be random scenes or shots that will shock you in a moment and then they’re gone. Do I personally wish he’d tone it back a bit? Yes. I think he could still do exactly what he does without having the occasional swear word or sex image.

But he obviously feels differently, and that’s his right.

With those disclaimers out of the way, let me say why I loved the Grand Budapest so much. It’s a heist movie, people. A Wes Anderson heist movie. Take a favorite director, add a favorite genre, and it’s a total Christmas gift to me. Ralph Fiennes plays a concierge of the titular hotel, and when one of his patrons passes away, he ends up stealing an invaluable piece of art. Sort of. It’s complicated, like any other Anderson movie. And I also don’t want to give too much away.

The film has a lovely Eastern European flair (and I discovered after the fact that the bulk of it was filmed where I served my mission in Germany–Gorlitz, in case you were wondering. Can the movie get any better for me?). The settings are perfect, the buildings are gorgeous–such a well put together movie. The acting is also spot on, with a great performance by Fiennes, and notable roles for Willem Defoe, Adrian Brody, Bill Murray (though not enough–more of a cameo than anything), Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Saorise Ronan, Edward Nortan, and Tilda Swinton.

Great acting, great directing–what else do you need? Great writing. And the movie has that in spades, as well. Fascinating dialogue and narration, little in-jokes sprinkled throughout to keep even the slow parts entertaining.

Honestly, I wish I could unreservedly recommend this movie to everyone. I know so many people who would adore it, but who I don’t feel like I can encourage them to see it, and all for about 15 seconds total of the 100 minute movie. If it were only 15 seconds all at once, 0r 15 seconds that I could describe where not to look, but it isn’t. It’s flashes and images splashed up 7 or 8 times through the movie, and they’re shocking enough to stop me from making that unreserved recommendation.

Still, if you’re not put off by that warning, or you can somehow find an edited version of this at some point, this really isn’t a movie you want to miss at all. 9/10 from yours truly.

Anyone else seen it? What did you think?

Why I Loved The Wire

I just finished the final episode of HBO’s The Wire last week. I’ve been waiting to review this series until I’d seen the whole thing, mainly because it’s so (relatively) old at this point–it didn’t feel current enough to warrant season by season reactions, even. (Plus, a big group of my readers will probably never watch the show–see my previous rant on HBO and Netflix and the pornification of good television.) But this was a series that Entertainment Weekly voted “Best TV Show of All Time.” I had to see what the fuss was about.

And I’m really glad I did.

Taken as a whole, I would have to agree with EW’s assessment. The Wire is certainly the best television show *I’ve* ever seen. Not that it was the show I loved watching the most, if that makes sense. I mean, I love Battlestar Galactica, Buffy, Lost, Doctor Who–but there are pieces of all of them that really don’t work all that well. They were a blast to watch, but you don’t want to start thinking too hard about some of them, or they suffer from weak beginnings or spotty episodes. Other shows like Downton dip too much into soap opera.

The Wire stands out from all of them because of a few key elements:

  • Character–Great acting performances across the board. These are characters that we get to know really well over the course of 5 seasons, and yet they can continue to surprise us time after time. Just like with real people. You might think you have someone pigeonholed, and then they go and do something you never would have expected. At the same time, they also just keep being who they are. I loved the character of McNulty, because he’s so self-destructive. He’s got a long stretch where you think he’s finally redeemed himself . . . and then he can’t help but continue shooting holes in his life boat. And the sheer range of characters–so many great stories. So many great performances. I loved how characters who usually didn’t interact would suddenly come across each other in a storyline, and I loved seeing how they responded to meeting each other. So well done.
  • The story–5 seasons of really well done storytelling. After the first season, you think you have the show down: it’s a cop/drug dealer drama. And then suddenly in season two, it’s about dock workers? And then it’s about politics, school districts, newspapers, social workers, legal systems–it just keeps going in new directions, while somehow feeling the same throughout it all. Very impressive. At the same time, all characters were fair game. People could die or have life changing experiences at any time, and it didn’t have to be in a way you’d expect it to go in a story. Someone might live through an experience that should have killed them, only to be gunned down in a random act a few episodes later. In some shows, that might be really frustrating. In this one? It just made it feel more true to life.
  • The end–I don’t remember a show that worked so well with its ending as The Wire did. It essentially brings the whole series full circle, ending where it began in a way that felt true to life. All those problems and conflicts we’d seen over the past five years? They haven’t gone anywhere. The beginning of the show was just the ending of a different show, and the ending of this one is the beginning of another. A great package deal.

There are definitely elements of the show I could have done without. The nonstop swearing and the early season insistence on random sex scenes, for example. McNulty’s serial killer in season five is an element I’m still up in the air about. It gets really close to soap opera territory, but at the same time, it’s McNulty, and it’s just the sort of stunt I could see him trying to pull.

In any case, I really enjoyed the show, and it earned every point of my 10/10 rating. Say what you want about HBO, but they put out some very fine TV series, from an acting/writing/directing/producing standpoint.

I know I’m late to the party, but I’d love to hear from other people who watched the show. What was it like seeing it as it came out week to week? What did you love? Anything you hated? Do share. (And if you’re local and don’t have HBO, know that I just purchased the entire show on DVD for the library. How’s that for service?)

The Power of a Captive Audience

Flew out to Utah yesterday, and for once the trip went fairly smoothly. Delayed by about an hour, but for Bryce standards, that almost deserves a gold star. No soccer teams. The kids were well behaved throughout. Even MC handled it all like a champ, though she didn’t sleep hardly at all–true to form for all of our kids on planes, which is true to form to me, so perhaps that’s where they get it.

This also meant I was at the mercies of the travel gods when it came to what sort of entertainment I’d be able to consume. (Well, not entirely–I’d loaded the iPads with some movies for the kids. Because it’s one thing to be bored yourself, but it’s an entirely different thing to be stuck with two bored kids for the whole day.) I watched two movies that I probably wouldn’t have watched otherwise. Well, one that I definitely wouldn’t have, and one that I probably wouldn’t have.

First up was Standing Up, a teen drama about two kids (boy and girl) who get bullied at summer camp. Not exactly up my alley. It’s got one strike against it right off for being a drama. The movie starts out with both kids getting taken off to an island, stripped, and abandoned. That’s the point where I was faced with a tough decision: which would be less pleasurable? Sitting on a bus watching the road for two hours, or watching this movie?

Life is full of tough decisions.

In the end, I decided the nice thing about watching a sappy movie would be that anytime I got really bored, I could just look out the window and remind myself that I had nothing better to do.

The movie turned out okay, more or less. Compared to the alternative, certainly. Still, it was almost devoid of humor, and its plot hinged on adults making really silly decisions. It’s based on The Goats, a YA book that’s been well received. I hope it’s better than the movie, plot-wise. Then again, the movie was well acted, and it wasn’t one of those horrendous movies where people (SPOILERS!) all die at the end. So there’s that going for it. I’d give it a 5.5/10, though people who go for these kinds of movies will likely rate it higher.

Second was on the plane, where I discovered Delta had the genius idea of putting personal entertainment units in each seat . . . and then charging for any movie you tried to watch on them. (Thanks, Delta. That was fun explaining it to my kids.) However, after some trial and experimentation, I found out you could watch TV channels for free. So the kids watched Cartoon Network and I watched FX, which was showing This Means War.

Talk about a horrendous premise. Two BFF spies meet and fall for the same girl, and decide to use her as a playing field of sorts to see who could get her to fall for them. I don’t know–maybe I was just in a bad mood because of the plane ride, but it seemed like such a sexist movie. And of course Reese is okay with everything at the end.

Predictable from start to finish. Weak attempts at humor. Deplorable morals. Not a good movie at all.

But better than sitting on an airplane remembering that I’m sitting on an airplane.

4/10. Avoid.

Watching lame movies kind of makes me want to watch something excellent to get that bad taste out of my mouth. Might be in for a bit of quality Netflixing today . . .

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