Monday, December 31, 2012

Revenge – a dish best served bloody with a side of bullets

        Few directors working today have developed as distinctive a style as Tarantino. When you walk into one of his movies or pop one into the ol’ DVD player, you pretty much know what you’re going to get: genre riffs, an endless amount of pop culture references, elaborate dialogue sequences, a meticulously curated soundtrack, plenty of blood and violence and…well, just take a look at this handy slideshow. The point is that you probably have already decided what you think of Tarantino as a director, and whether you think he’s a modern visionary or a self-indulgent hack, Django Unchained, his latest cinematic pop art confection, is unlikely to change your opinion. Though some of his stylistic tendencies don’t surface here (gone is the usual segmented format, and his foot fetish is thankfully kept to a minimum), the spaghetti western homage is signature Tarantino.

          The theme of revenge has been one of the biggest constants throughout Tarantino’s career. This time around, he sets his sights on slavery in the American antebellum South with a tale of a freed-slave-turned-bounty-hunter intent on rescuing his wife from a sadistic plantation owner. It’s a thorny topic, though one not tackled nearly often enough in film, and the question of whether Tarantino is being disrespectful in using this ugly, still-painful time in American history as the basis for a revenge fantasy is certainly valid (in fact, director Spike Lee has already voiced his opposition to the movie and vowed to boycott it). Still, there’s something refreshing about Tarantino’s unflinching, in-your-face approach to the subject, his refusal to soften the blow for fear of offending audiences, and at least he’s open about the element of exploitation that inherently comes with depicting something like this onscreen (what exactly makes Django any more exploitative than, say, The Help?). To be sure, this is not exactly the most comfortable experience you’ll have at the theater this year; some scenes, like ones involving a pack of dogs and Mandingo fighting, are downright excruciating to watch. If you can stomach the brutality, however, it is a giddy, visceral and ultimately rewarding ride.  

Honestly, if you’re relying on this man to teach you about slavery, I think we have some other problems to worry about.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Les Miserables review: Nothing but a Dream


                “There was a time when men were kind…”

                So begins the most celebrated song from Les Miserables, the blockbuster musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel of the same name. Originally written and produced by songwriter Alain Boublil and composer Claude-Michel Schönberg in France, it has since inspired numerous productions both in the U.S. and around the world, blossoming into one of the most popular musicals of all time. It’s hard to believe that, although the story of Les Mis has been translated into film many times, including, most recently, a version starring Liam Neeson as Jean Valjean and Geoffrey Rush as Inspector Javert, no one has managed to bring the stage musical to the silver screen – until now, that is. After twenty years of failed attempts, Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper has finally turned the international sensation into a work of cinema.

                Lovers of the musical should not be disappointed. Hooper’s adaptation keeps the sung-through style of the stage version intact; if I’d bothered keeping track, I could probably have counted the number of lines of spoken dialogue on two hands. And the grand scope certainly befits the inherent theatricality of a stage musical. The movie opens with a sweeping overhead shot of the harbor, where an army of convicts bound in chain gangs struggles to right a capsized ship, their faces drenched in water and mud. It’s a jaw-dropping sight, plunging viewers straight into the grit and grime of 19th century France, and for the most part, the movie works best in scenes like this: epic, grandiose and bursting with Big Emotions. As with many plays (musicals in particular), subtlety is not in the vocabulary of Les Mis. The symbolism is blatant (when Jean Valjean is forced to carry the fallen French flag, he’s a personification of the working class that supports the country through its typically unrewarded hard work); the characters openly state their thoughts and feelings, more often than not through song; and the themes of class, redemption and spirituality are broad. None of this is necessarily bad. In fact, at times, Les Miserables is quite moving.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Apatow still going strong at “40”


         Over the past couple of decades, Judd Apatow has built quite the resume. His name has been attached to everything from cult favorite TV shows Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared to Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Bridesmaids and seemingly every other comedy to come out of Hollywood since 2004. He boosted the careers of such stars as Seth Rogen, James Franco, Kristen Wiig and indie-breakout-turned-HBO-darling Lena Dunham. Considering the man’s ubiquity, it’s rather stunning that This Is 40, his latest work, is only his fourth directorial effort. Coming three years after the cancer comedy Funny People, This is 40 marks a fitting next step in Apatow’s career-long exploration of sex, love and relationships in modern America.

          You might not have guessed it from this blog, but I’m a huge Apatow fan, at least as far as his directorial works are concerned. Though I didn’t watch the show when it first aired, I adore Freaks and Geeks (why, NBC, why???), which is still the most accurate and relatable portrayal of high school life I’ve ever seen, and The 40 Year Old Virgin ranks among my all-time favorite comedies. I find Funny People, which received mixed reviews in part due to its much more serious material, to be supremely underrated, and even Knocked Up, my least favorite of the movies he’s directed, was an interesting take on the centuries-old battle of the sexes trope. This Is 40 continues Apatow’s tradition of blending raunchy, R-rated humor with heart. Anchored by two charming performances from Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann, it paints a funny yet frank portrait of that oh-so-fascinating phenomenon known as the midlife crisis in all its histrionic, messy glory.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey review: Eh, Good Enough


               Where to begin?

               Ah, yes. The Hobbit is now in theaters, available for public viewing. I still haven’t quite grasped the fact that I have finally seen Peter Jackson’s highly anticipated follow-up to his beloved (and some, including myself, would say untouchable) fantasy trilogy The Lord of the Rings. Indeed, if I could use one word to describe The Hobbit, both the product itself and the experience of watching it, it would be “surreal”: after all this time spent waiting and agonizing, I couldn’t do much during the film other than sit there in dazed silence. This is both a good thing and a bad thing, the movie’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness, and even now, I’m not sure which one comes out on top.

               Let’s start with the good. It feels nice to be back in Middle-Earth, this magical world of stubborn dwarves, nimble elves and hole-dwelling hobbits first dreamed up by J.R.R. Tolkien, that lover of language and mythology, in the 1950s and brought to vivid, awe-inspiring life by Jackson and his team of technical wizards at the start of the century. Even ten years later, the sight of the cozy hills of Hobbiton and the ethereal valley of Rivendell, the sweeping New Zealand vistas, still evoke a sense of child-like wonder and delight. The Middle-Earth of The Hobbit isn’t exactly the same as the Middle-Earth from The Lord of the Rings – it feels more familiar yet also slightly more fanciful – but the shots of lofty mountains and cavernous halls never fail to amaze me. Here, Jackson expands on the mythology established by The Lord of the Rings; dwarves, who were largely absent from the original trilogy, have a bigger presence here (there apparently are dwarf women, though we only see a glimpse of them), and we’re introduced to a few new creatures, such as mountain trolls and thunder giants. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Lucky Him: Why the King of Queens Principle Needs to Die

           Let me paint a picture for you. Once upon a time, there lived a schlubby guy with low self-esteem. He toiled away day after day at a menial job, receiving no recognition for his hard work and generally getting nowhere in life. His friends and coworkers agree that he is an all-around loser and make fun of him when he’s not in the room and, on occasion, when he is; perhaps they only hang out with him because he makes them feel better about themselves. Then, one day, they get the opportunity to finally meet the wife he keeps talking about (some of them had even questioned whether she really existed, because who’d want to marry a guy like that?). The time comes to meet her, and they can’t believe their eyes! The woman standing before them isn’t the homely embarrassment they were expecting: in fact, she’s downright hot. Like, Playboy bunny hot. Suddenly, they’re in awe of him. They can’t stop giving each other looks, wondering how that sucker scored such a babe of a wife. What’s his secret?

           Does this scenario sound familiar to you? If it doesn’t, you must not have watched a single movie or TV show in, I don’t know, your life (in which case, I’m not sure why you’re reading this blog, but you’re certainly welcome to stay). The average-looking dude/bombshell gal dynamic, which I am hereby dubbing the King of Queens Principle for this article, has been a pop culture staple for decades, appearing in everything from Annie Hall and The Hunchback of Notre Dame to Adam Sandler movies and pretty much anything about high school and teenagers ever.

            In case you can’t already tell, this particular cliché is a bit of a pet peeve of mine. Most recently, it was brought to my attention by a subplot in the latest episode of Parks & Rec. For those who don’t watch the show, or haven’t seen the latest episode, Jerry, who is essentially the loser described in the hypothetical situation above, throws a Christmas party, and to the amazement of some of the other characters, this party is actually really popular and awesome. At the party, they see his wife, Gayle, for the first time, and what do you know, she’s incomprehensibly hot. Tall and blonde with an hourglass-ish figure, she looks like a model; as a matter of fact, she’s played by real-life model Christie Brinkley. What’s more, she’s so attractive that she looks the same age as her and Jerry’s three daughters, who are also very pretty. Adam Scott’s Ben essentially spends the entire episode gaping at the sight this man, hapless, square-as-a-box Jerry, with that woman.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

One Trilogy to Rule Them All


***There are major spoilers ahead. So, if you haven’t seen The Lord of the Rings yet, what the hell is taking you so long? Just watch it, already!***

               Omgomgomg. There are two days left until The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is released for the world to see and judge. Throughout the past year, I’ve alternated between delirious excitement and curl-up-in-a-ball-and-cry apprehension. On one hand, The Lord of the Rings is (cliché alert!) the movie that made me fall in love with movies, and why would I not want to revisit Middle-Earth? Just watching the teaser trailer made my eyes misty with nostalgia. On the other hand, though, I’ve been more or less opposed to the idea of any kind of prequel/sequel/spin-off to The Lord of the Rings since Guillermero Del Toro was still attached to direct The Hobbit, and frankly, the full-length theatrical trailer hasn’t exactly allayed my fears with its corny humor and suspicious-looking make-up. Also, regardless of what the filmmakers say, there is absolutely no artistic reason to stretch a single 300-page children’s book into three movies.

If this movie fails, things could get ugly.


Saturday, December 1, 2012

My Love-Hate Relationship with Christmas


              Thanksgiving has come and gone, little more than a blink of the eye in another year of our lives. It seems like only yesterday I was bubbling with excitement at the thought of a five-day vacation and a dining room table overflowing with food (full disclosure: I don’t even like turkey that much, but for some reason, every year I find myself salivating over the mental image of a plump, dead bird glistening with fat and oil). Now, that’s over. We can breathe a sigh of relief that we’re finally free of our exasperating, idiosyncratic and otherwise unbearable relatives and heave a sigh of dejection that this brief escape from work, school and stress has come to an end.

              Welcome to the holiday season. To borrow a cliché, it’s a roller-coaster ride of emotions. Even now, I haven’t quite figured out how to feel about this last month of the year. The romantic part of me swoons at the sight of city streets draped in bright, multi-colored lights and the opportunity to reminisce about the past year – the good, the bad, the bizarre and everything in between. But the more disillusioned part of me dreads the tedious – not to mention expensive – ritual of buying presents that will most likely be admired for a week, tops, and the continuous merry-go-round of bland, self-indulgent Christmas carol covers that inevitably make the rounds on every radio station from Top 40s to Classical. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t mind going the rest of my life without hearing “O Holy Night” ever again. And can we please stop pretending “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” is anything but creepy?

I can’t believe this is on my YouTube search history, but what the actual hell. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

Silver Linings Playbook Will Dance its Way into Your Heart

            It’s official: David O. Russell has gone mainstream. I don’t mean that as a bad thing; it’s not like he’s gone off and started making Transformers when we weren’t paying attention. In fact, I rather like this new guy. Though he made his feature debut in 1994 with some movie starring Jeremy Davis called Spanking the Monkey, which sounds just about as bizarre as its title suggests, Russell broke out with the Gulf War-set Three Kings, later followed by the quirky, love-it-or-hate-it comedy I Heart Huckabees. Still, it wasn’t until 2010, when he made The Fighter with frequent collaborator Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale, that the director really received widespread recognition. That movie went on to become a major awards contender, ultimately garnering a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars as well as a nomination for Russell and wins for Bale and supporting actress Melissa Leo. After winning the top prize at the Toronto Film Festival in September, it looks like Russell’s latest, Silver Linings Playbook, might be headed in the same direction.

            This swell of awards buzz is well-deserved but, frankly, rather surprising, seeing as the movie itself seems to have no such lofty intentions, eschewing the showy ambition that usually characterizes Oscar hopefuls for something far more modest. All things considered, in terms of narrative, Silver Linings Playbook is pretty much just your standard romantic comedy. It’s certainly as predictable as one, adhering for the most part to the conventional boy-meets-girl structure without throwing any particularly unexpected curveballs or game-changing twists. Of course Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence are going to end up together, so it’s just a matter of how they get there, one of those “it’s the journey, not the destination” deals. The difference between Russell’s film and the generic Katherine Heigl/Jennifer Aniston vehicles that have made the genre a target of derision is that we actually care about that journey. Where most rom-coms are cloying and annoyingly artificial, this Playbook sings with honesty and unreserved exuberance every step of the way.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Anna Karenina Review: Costume Porn at Its Finest


              In Act 2, Scene 7, of his comedy As You Like It, William Shakespeare penned the now-ubiquitous aphorism, “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players.” It’s impossible not to think of this quote when watching Anna Karenina – the movie is, after all, literally set on a stage. Director Joe Wright has stated that this decision was provoked primarily by financial obligations, but as it turns out, it also works perfectly on an artistic level, since this is a story about, among other things, the fragile boundaries between public and private, duty and desire, and what happens when they collapse.

               From the outset, the movie was bound to be polarizing; for every person who thinks the whole stage-as-metaphor conceit is a stroke of genius, several others will probably write it off as a pretentious gimmick. Admittedly, at times, it does come off as a tad too mannered and theatrical, more fitting for a Broadway musical than a prestigious cinematic literary adaptation, but for the most part, Wright manages to pull it off, exercising just enough restraint to prevent the entire thing from disintegrating into an overly lavish and chaotic extravaganza a la Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. The grandiosity fits impeccably with the epic scale and melodramatic tone of Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel (dubbed by some the greatest work of literature ever written).

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Why We Need More Movies like Cloud Atlas

          Cloud Atlas isn’t a very good movie. Let’s just make that clear from the start. Sloppily executed, despite the Wachowskis’ and Tom Tykwer’s obviously sincere efforts, it’s a cloying, bizarre, epic mess that aims for the stars without ever managing to get off the ground. There were a couple of bright spots, to be fair – namely, the lovely score and a couple of performances, though those were mostly too limited in screen time to be fully appreciated – but they did little to compensate for the film’s abundant flaws. Plus, no matter how much those involved try to justify it by saying the movie was about transcending race and that it was a necessary and understandable decision from an artistic standpoint (it really wasn’t), the use of yellowface in Cloud Atlas is depressing and offensive, made worse by how poorly and lazily it was done. Moreover, you know that we’d all be rightfully up-in-arms and that no one would be writing articles like this if they’d used blackface, which is probably why the filmmakers didn’t attempt it.

Jim Sturgess, you’re a terrific actor, but just…no.

         All of this is to say that I could write an entire blog post about my issues with Cloud Atlas (or you can just read my fellow blogger WordMaster’s review, which sums them all up pretty accurately), or even one focused solely on why its use of yellowface is so problematic, but right now, I’m here to explain why this is exactly the kind of movie we as an audience should demand more of.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Cloud Atlas Review: You Tried


                Cloud Atlas is a masterpiece – not the movie, but the award-winning novel by celebrated British author David Mitchell. Published in 2004 to sensational reviews, the story sprawls across countries and generations, starting in 1850s New Zealand and ultimately ending up in post-apocalyptic Hawaii, as well as genres; we get everything from a pulpy conspiracy thriller to a farcical comedy to a dystopian science-fiction coming-of-age tale, all seamlessly woven together through the subtly connected characters and Mitchell’s elegant, versatile prose. If ever a truly unfilmable book existed, this might be it.

                I’m still not sure whether this attempt by the Wachowskis (the duo behind the revolutionary sci-fi action flick The Matrix) and Tom Tykwer (director of the German-language Run Lola Run and the Clive Owen-starring The International) to bring Mitchell’s vision to life is more daring or reckless. Certainly, in a time when the movie industry seems less focused on quality than quantity and even independent film-makers adhere too closely to predetermined clichés and norms, any project of this scope and ambition deserves resounding praise for its efforts alone. Regardless of how the end product turned out, whether it was an awe-inspiring tour de force or an awe-inspiring catastrophe, people were going to talk about it, which is more than I can say for the majority of movies that flit into theaters nowadays.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Seven Psychopaths Review: Insanity, He Wrote


                You need a thick skin to enjoy Seven Psychopaths. As anyone who’s seen 2008’s cult favorite In Bruges knows, Irish playwright/writer-director Martin McDonagh is far from conservative when it comes to violence, profanity, nudity and political incorrectness, not treading the line between provocative and offensive so much as lunging over it with no-holds-barred and middle fingers flying. In the span of 110 minutes, he pokes fun at virtually every segment of the human population, including writers, the Irish, the obese, blacks, gays, Christians, Fox News and, of course, women; at least midgets – whoops, I meant dwarves – somehow manage to escape unscathed this time. In short, if you have delicate sensibilities and/or are not secretly psychopathic, this probably isn’t the movie for you. Don’t worry, I’ll wait for you to leave…

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Argo proves (again) that Ben Affleck is the real deal


                Argo, the latest pulse-pounding, refreshingly intelligent thriller from actor/former tabloid sensation/now-respectable director Ben Affleck, opens with an animated montage that summarizes the general political history and climate of Iran. A combination of cartoon storyboards and archival video footage are used to illustrate the circumstances that led to the United States offering asylum to a deposed, cancer-stricken shah and the subsequent 1979 storming of the American embassy by a group of Iranian students, who held hostages there for 444 days. What follows is a gripping account of how the CIA, led by technical operations officer Tony Mendez, helped extract six Americans who’d escaped the embassy by disguising them as Canadian crew members for a fabricated movie. Gifted with such a fascinating (and, considering the recent attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya, eerily relevant) storyline, Affleck turns in his best work yet as a director. Who would’ve thought that the star of such gems as Armageddon and Gigli would be such a virtuoso behind the camera? What’s more, it’s only his third feature film, and if this current trend keeps up, his next one could be even better.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Master Review: So... Now What?


  Paul Thomas Anderson has a knack for theatricality. His 1999 tour de force Magnolia might as well have been a play filmed on camera, and the critically beloved Best Picture nominee There Will Be Blood has, at least on the surface, all the makings of a classic Shakespearean tragedy. How effective that theatricality is probably depends on the whims of the individual viewer. Personally, I thought it worked splendidly in Magnolia, but There Will Be Blood was overwrought to the point of pretentiousness. The thing is, when your movie is full of hysterical characters, exaggerated emotions and intense music, the actual content has to be worthy of all that drama; I suppose my main complaint about There Will Be Blood is that beneath the breathtaking cinematography and deliciously spine-tingling score, the story itself is rather ordinary, and I’m still not quite sure what people find so fascinating about the character of Daniel Plainview. After that chilling, wordless opening scene, it looked promising, but by the time the credits rolled, my main thought was: So what?

                I was sincerely hoping that The Master would alleviate the sour taste left in my mouth by There Will Be Blood, and while I watched the movie unfold, I did find it thoroughly compelling. Still, as I walked out of the theater, I couldn’t get rid of the feeling gnawing at the back of my mind that something was missing, a feeling that only intensified the longer I thought about it. It isn’t that The Master is a bad film; in fact, it’s a near-flawless film, at least from a technical standpoint. But it could have been more. It could have been a masterpiece, a genuine revelation. Instead, it’s merely another well-made, well-acted prestige picture, more intriguing than brilliant or powerful.

The Time of Their Lives


   Adolescence is a funny thing. It’s a time when kids start to stumble out of the blissful ignorance of childhood and into the complicated world of adults, when they’re expected to find themselves as individuals yet nothing seems more important than the need to fit in, to belong. Ripe with soapy drama and easily manufactured conflict, the subject has been tackled endlessly in movies, TV shows and books. However, the truth is that said movies, TV shows and books often aren’t particularly good, all too frequently succumbing to lazy stereotypes and artificial sentimentality – high school as seen through the eyes of the middle-aged.

                The Perks of Being a Wallflower doesn’t do anything groundbreaking or radical. Stripped to its bare bones, the story seems melodramatic and cliché-ridden, populated by the stock character types we’ve come to expect from every teen flick. There’s the shy, bookish loner, the charming and attractive girl of his dreams, the outspoken gay guy, the secretly sensitive (and, in this case, closeted) jock. Furthermore, touching on bullying, drinking, drugs, sexual responsibility, homophobia and even sexual abuse, the movie covers enough issues to fill an afterschool special or ten; one character even says as much halfway through. Add to that an obsession with mix tapes that gives it a slightly dated feel, and you’d be forgiven for thinking the whole affair sounds like a mediocre, histrionic sap-fest. And yet, to the contrary, Wallflower turns out to be one of the best teen-centric movies in years.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

When Ignorance Is Bliss


             Dear readers,

             As you’ve probably noticed (or maybe not since I doubt there are more than maybe five of you), there has been a gaping lack of new content on here lately. Blame reality. Well, that and my general laziness and the fact that the Washington Nationals are currently giving D.C. its first dose of postseason baseball in nearly a century.

 All you non-baseball fans are really missing out on something special.

              Anyway, to be completely honest, I haven’t had much to talk about lately other than baseball, and I’m sure you guys don’t want to hear me gush about that anymore. Last Saturday, I went to see The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s follow-up to the feverishly praised (albeit, in my opinion, overrated) There Will Be Blood. It was my first trip to the movie theater since I saw The Dark Knight Rises in IMAX over two months ago. You might say, “WordMaster, there are so many things to discuss. Why don’t you talk about something that actually matters for once?” Well, true; I could talk about politics, society, real life or any of those things that most normal people find fascinating. But, as you guys know, I’m not normal. I’m that weird person whose existence revolves almost entirely around an endless string of pop culture obsessions. So when I realized that (1) I hadn’t seen a movie in theaters in two months and (2) I didn’t really care, I felt like I was having a legitimate identity crisis. If I wasn’t devouring movies and TV shows with an enthusiasm that bordered on mania, what was I even doing? What was the point of my life?

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Plunging into the Great Steroid Debate

            Cheating is wrong. That’s what every child is taught from the moment he or she is old enough to take a test at school or play a board game. It’s the fundamental principle that underlies every sport and competitive event, a seemingly basic standard that all are expected to abide by regardless of circumstance or level of competition. As naïve as it sounds, I’d like to believe that the concept of fairness holds significant value even in the cutthroat, money-driven world of pro sports, that the athletes and teams I root for have the integrity and sense of self-worth to maintain an even playing field and that the outcome of each game, each season is determined by talent, hard work and a pinch – or an ocean – of luck. It’s a glorious, ideal world, so simple and alluring compared to our mundane, messy everyday lives.

            Then, every so often, reality will casually stroll by and slap you in the face, just as it did this past Wednesday, when the San Francisco Giants’ outfielder Melky Cabrera was suspended for 50 games by MLB after testing positive for testosterone, an illegal performance-enhancing drug. Previously playing for the Yankees, Braves and Royals, Cabrera was traded to the Giants during the offseason in exchange for pitcher Jonathan Sanchez (we can all agree the Giants still, hands-down, won that swap, right?). He emerged in 2012 as a stunning offensive force, finding himself in the National League All Star starting lineup and putting up a number of impressive stats, including a .346 batting average that put him in line for the NL batting title (which, for those of you who might not know, goes to the player with the highest average at the end of each season). With this suspension, Cabrera has not only tarnished his individual reputation, but also put in jeopardy the season of his team, which has been spent the past couple of months locked in a tight battle with the Los Angeles Dodgers for the National League West division lead. That potential batting title, however, is apparently still his to lose.

At least we probably won’t have to see these dorky "Melkmen" costumes anymore.

Friday, August 10, 2012

How to Breathe Life into a Fictional Character

There is a debate that rages among writers, both amateur and professional, over the importance of plot versus character. Personally, I don’t think one is inherently more essential than the other (they’re equally indispensable elements of any story), but I’ll admit that I’m somewhat partial toward characters, if only because the act of creating fictional people that I inevitably find more interesting than anyone I’ve met in real life has always been one of my favorite parts of writing. Besides, for me, plot tends to be: people talk + random arguments + a big blur of shit happening that I’ll figure out later.

Anyway, not that I’m a genius with character development or anything, but here is some advice that you might want to heed when populating your novel/short story/script/fan fic/whatever:

Know your characters. This one seems pretty obvious, but it’s also probably the hardest aspect of character development and perhaps even writing in general. Anyone can just throw a bunch of adjectives together and call it a character, but a good writer can delve into a character’s mind and recite obscure details about his backstory and inner psychology like a therapist analyzing his patient. If someone asks you what your main character did on her 10th birthday, you better be able come up with an answer. Even if you never end up using that particular piece of info in your story, it’s always good to be aware of it, just in case. Who knows? That one obscure, seemingly trivial detail could unlock entirely new doors for your character and shed light on some shadowy corner that you never would have seen otherwise. Besides, if you’re anything like me, creating characters is like wandering through a labyrinth: it’s complicated and maybe even frustrating at times, but it’s addictive as hell, and each turn brings with it a giddy rush of realization that there’s still more left to discover.  I could spend hours, days, weeks, exploring my characters and digging up information about their lives and personalities, their highest hopes and deepest, darkest secrets, wondering what makes them unhappy (advice-inside-advice: happy characters are boring characters) and what kind of music they listen to. I do it partly because it distracts me from actually writing my story, but I also do it because it’s fun and it lets my imagination soar.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Golden Age of Superheroes


           At one point during Joss Whedon’s mega-blockbuster The Avengers, Nick Fury muses that heroes are “an old-fashioned notion”. Indeed, after the Cold War, Watergate, 9/11 and dozens of other scandals, controversies and tragedies, the idea of superheroes – extraordinary individuals who combat evildoers and protect their societies with the help of a secret identity – seems hopelessly naïve. Even as we admire the physical and moral qualities of superheroes, we can’t quite get rid of that thought nagging at the back of our minds: why should we put the safety of the community, if not the entire world, in the hands of a guy dressed in spandex tights, who is just as fallible as the rest of us? The whole idea isn’t inspiring so much as ridiculous and more than a little elitist. 

            So, it seems paradoxical to say that 2012, a year that has seen the U.S. mired in seemingly endless economic turmoil and an already-tiresome presidential campaign, represents the Golden Age of superhero movies. The 21st century has been largely defined by cynicism, bitterness and gloom, yet never has the superhero genre, one almost relentless in its romanticism and naiveté, been so popular, so mainstream. And to cap it all off, this year – this summer, to be more specific – heralded the release of three of the most eagerly anticipated superhero movies in history, a holy triumvirate that brought a decade-long struggle for acceptance to its rousing (and lucrative) climax: The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man and, at long last, The Dark Knight Rises. What’s remarkable about these films is not the overwhelming hype leading up to them or their inevitable annihilation of the box office but the fact that collectively, they showcase everything that superhero movies are capable of, embracing the genre’s tropes while also pushing its boundaries in subtle and exciting ways. Enjoy this, fellow moviegoers: we’re witnessing the end of an era, a genre at its best, and more likely than not, we’ll never see anything like it again.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Nolan’s Final Batman Film Rises to the Occasion


How do you top a movie like The Dark Knight? This is a movie that not only smashed box office records, but also seeped into the cultural consciousness in a way that few films can, changing people’s expectations of what superhero flicks can do and lending weight to a genre often dismissed as superficial or purely escapist. According to The Dark Knight Rises, the explosive yet surprisingly sweet conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s groundbreaking blockbuster trilogy, the answer is: apparently, you don’t. Faced with such a daunting task, many directors would have opted for a “bigger is better” approach, as though adding more action, more special effects and more villains can make what is actually a mere repetition of the same story feel fresh. Instead, Nolan finds new creative ground to mine, resulting in a film that seeks to complement, rather than copy, its predecessors. By combining the intimacy of Batman Begins with the ambitious scope and intellectual musings of The Dark Knight, Rises delivers both as a compelling piece of entertainment on its own and a natural extension of previous installments.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Unnecessary (?) Spider-Man


          If you’ve read the review I posted last week, you should know that I enjoyed Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man quite a bit. With its spirited action sequences, tender/awkward romance and a near-brilliant lead performance by Andrew Garfield, the movie represents the beginning of a promising new franchise, as it (re)introduces the world to a complex, engaging protagonist and leaves plenty of room for plot and character development in the inevitable sequels.

 God, they're adorable together.

Of course, not everyone agrees with me. The film currently has a 74% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, barely fresh, and critical reviews range from glowing and pleasantly surprised to lukewarm and even downright hostile. I could go through each of the critiques presented in these reviews separately and discuss why I agree with them or why they leave me speechless with bafflement and/or irrational resentment (who is Roger Moore and why does Rotten Tomatoes list him as a “top critic”?), but in the end, they all pretty much boil down to one overarching theme: that, regardless of how much effort the film-makers put into the movie or whatever small virtues it may have, it simply has no reason to exist. It’s the embodiment of everything wrong with Hollywood nowadays, a lazy, pointless bid for cash that apparently has less imagination than the Transformers movies.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

My 2012 Emmy Wish-List


                It’s that time of the year, folks. In just two days, on July 19, 2012, Kerry Washington and Nick Offerman will announce the nominations for the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences’ 64th Primetime Emmy Awards. The lineups will no doubt be swiftly met with much scorn and bickering over the snubs, surprises and undeserving nominees, so in anticipation of all that, I’ve decided to grace you with my personal Emmy wish-list. Note that these are not predictions, so don’t expect them to be at all logical or realistic, and as amazing as I imagine they are, you won’t be seeing any Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones mentions here, because I can only watch and keep up with so many TV shows. If you have your own ideas of what you’d like to see from the Emmys, feel free to share them in the comments section. Now, with those disclaimers out of the way, let’s get down to business:

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Not-So-Itsy Spider (No, Not Spider-man)

         One word: Black Widow. So two words, actually.

           I’ve read mixed reactions to Scarlett Johansson’s part in Marvel’s latest orgasm of property damage, and after hours of thought-provoking research and hours of less thought-provoking tumblr, I’m ready to weigh in. The two sides of the argument, to the best of my research and exposition skills, are as follows: one camp seems to believe that Black Widow was portrayed in a tasteful, respectful, and well-developed way; the other holds that she’s the latest victim in Hollywood’s longstanding infatuation with sexism and superheroes. And then some people didn’t seem to notice she existed at all.  

           If you go through a lot of the Avengers comments, you’ll find some recurrent themes. More often than not, Black Widow’s character is mentioned in passing as a (female) master assassin; and then they go on to talk about characters that are more interesting (ie have more penis). When she is given some actual ink on the page, chances are that the majority of it will be dedicated to how hot she looks in leather. Because as soon as a woman steps onto the screen, audiences (and specifically male audiences, let’s not sugarcoat this) are conditioned to first see them in a sexual light. Decades of introducing women with slow body pan ups has helped see to that.

            Just look at this review at the New Yorker, where the critic decided that “Black Widow repels invading aliens through the sheer force of her corsetry.” Yeah, because her guns and combat training and intelligence and courage had nothing to do with it.


Monday, July 9, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man Review: Once More, With Passion

**Warning: Minor spoilers ahead**

Let’s just get this out of the way first: I don’t particularly like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy. I found the first one mildly enjoyable, the second one alright but not nearly the masterpiece that some people make it out to be and the third one a farcical mess whose lone saving grace is James Franco’s performance as Harry Osbourne. So, when I heard that Sony was planning a complete makeover of everyone’s friendly neighborhood superhero even though the original franchise had jumpstarted a mere ten years ago, I honestly could not make much of a fuss. Sorry, if you want someone with whom to share your outrage over the idea of a tentpole blockbuster that exists for the sole purpose of maintaining the rights to a character, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Don’t get me wrong – this is a shameless, contemptible cash-grab, and I suppose that, as a staunch advocate for artistic integrity and whatnot, I’m obligated to root for The Amazing Spider-Man to fail on principle alone. But as a fan of Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone and (500) Days of Summer, it was impossible to contain my excitement for Marc Webb’s take on the now-ubiquitous superhero genre; if nothing else, it was sure to be interesting, perhaps unlike any comic book movie we’ve seen before.

Friday, July 6, 2012

2012: The Year Women Took Over a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World


              According to journalists, bloggers and whoever else decides this sort of thing, 2012 is the Year of the Movie Geek – or, as Entertainment Weekly suggested, to some predictable grumbling, the Year of the Dude Movie. You could go through the usual arguments about how movies aren’t gender-exclusive and how women enjoy watching superheroes and shit blowing up just as much as men, but it’s hard to deny that this year seems to be stuffed with even more traditionally male-oriented fare than usual, with offerings like The Dark Knight Rises, The Avengers and The Bourne Legacy dominating the year’s cinematic slate and nary a romantic comedy or female-centric film to be seen. Yet, amidst all this testosterone, a ray of hope has quietly emerged: despite being theoretically geared toward men, many of these action, sci-fi and comic book flicks have actually served as showcases for women.
  Don’t believe me? Take a look at some of the “dude movies” released thus far. January 20th kicked the year off with Underworld: Awakening, the fourth installment in that shockingly prolific vampires-meet-werewolves franchise, and Steven Soderbergh’s spy movie Haywire, both headlined by women. Fast-forward two months, and we’ve got The Hunger Games, 2012’s first real blockbuster; like the Suzanne Collins young adult novel it was based on, the movie derived much of its appeal from the character of Katniss Everdeen, who has become one of the most iconic heroines in recent memory thanks to her fiery personality and skill with a bow and arrow. The Avengers may have been a sausage-fest in terms of sheer numbers, yet it was Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow who not only served as the superhero juggernaut’s emotional center, but also seemed to generate the most conversation among filmgoers, even if some people refused to recognize her awesomeness. Snow White and the Huntsman and Prometheus? More leading ladies. Even Pixar got in on the act, featuring a female character as their central protagonist for the first time ever in Brave.

  Of course, these are hardly the first movies to put a woman in the center of all the action. In 1979, Ridley Scott introduced the world to Ellen Ripley, Sigourney Weaver’s smart, competent and tough corporate grunt-turned-alien fighter who is largely recognized as cinema’s first real action heroine. With the sequel, Aliens, in 1986, Ripley was firmly cemented as a character as edgy and classic as James Bond or Indiana Jones.

 Just sooo badass.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Total Eclipse of the Stars

        As a movie lover, I find few things more satisfying – or frustrating – than following the careers of actors I like. First, there are the promising up-and-comers, like Saoirse Ronan, Emile Hirsch, Josh Hutcherson and Garrett Hedlund, among others, who will (hopefully) blossom into the next generation’s A-list. Then, there are the already established thespians who, for whatever reason, haven’t been living up to their potential. I can list dozens of actors that I think are infinitely superior to the work they’ve been putting out lately or have faded from the limelight and deserve more attention: Russell Crowe, Edward Norton, Jodie Foster, Denzel Washington, Kate Hudson (though at this point, I’m starting to wonder if Almost Famous really was a fluke), Guy Pearce, etc., etc. I can guarantee you that every film buff alive has spent the past two decades wishing that Robert De Niro would return to his Taxi Driver/Raging Bull glory days. 

 Thank you, Ridley Scott, for getting my hopes up.

        But maybe more than anybody else, I would love for Tom Cruise to remind audiences why he used to be the biggest movie star on the planet. 

        Ironically, the things that most people dislike about Cruise – his immense fame and influence, his highly publicized yet strangely enigmatic personal life, his complete lack of self-consciousness – are part of why I find him so fascinating. I’ve personally never quite understood the fuss over a certain couch-jumping incident; yeah, it’s weird, awkward and maybe a tad self-indulgent, but as far as celebrity scandals go, it isn’t exactly  a racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, homophobic tirade caught on tape or a conviction for drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl, which apparently still gets you a petition of support from your colleagues who think that your unparalleled talent as a film-maker should pardon you from arrest. Anyway, the vast majority of people nowadays (at least judging by Internet message boards, which should always be taken with the utmost seriousness) may think of Cruise as a couch-jumping, secretly gay, lunatic Scientologist, but to me, he’s still the kid who slid across the room in his underwear to the tune of Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll” in Risky Business, poised on the verge of instant stardom. Even back then, he had this feverish intensity, this effortless self-confidence, that was hypnotic to watch, somehow seeming both vaguely superficial and entirely natural. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that, after the passing of Elizabeth Taylor last year, Cruise may be the last genuine movie star alive.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Say What? Writing Dialogue 101

Speech is what happens when two people get together and eventually feel too uncomfortable to stand around in silence. More romantically, it’s a way for people to connect and understand each other. But I’m not here to talk about conversations with real human beings; I’m here to teach you how to write fake ones. I can hardly make it through a real discussion without jumping out the window or swallowing my own tongue. I’m the kind of person who says “Good morning” at 6pm, and who makes loud, painfully unfunny jokes before laughing manically and diving into the nearest book. In general, I consider getting through any social interaction without physical harm or psychological trauma to be a raging success. I would literally chop off my own hand to provide a conversation topic if the silence goes on for too long.

Even a computer program questions my social skills.

We’ll start by tackling the snarly conundrum that is human speech by breaking it down into nice, organized, easy-to-understand categories. Haha, just kidding. We’re going to roll around in the scrambled word-discharge from my brain and hope that something sticks. Now roll, damnit! Roll!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Building Great Expectations

            It started with a single brilliant trailer and one of the most memorable taglines of all time: In space no one can hear you scream. Thirty-three years and four movies later, the Alien franchise is returning to its roots with Ridley Scott finally coming back to the director’s chair for Prometheus, which opened last Friday after months of hype and publicity.

           Again, it all started with a trailer (essentially a homage to the first one with a bit of Inception foghorn added in) and an intriguing tagline (“They went looking for our beginning. What they found could be our end.”), but this time, that was only the tip of the advertising iceberg. Next came the posters and official stills, the set photos and TV spots, more trailers and even a stunningly elaborate fake corporate website. Don’t forget the viral videos like this one, and this one. And this one. Oh, and did I mention that this was the movie that introduced the world to that increasingly annoying “teaser for the trailer” phenomenon? From December of last year, all the way up until the film’s June 8 release, the Prometheus marketing team scattered clues and tidbits throughout the Internet and the public’s collective consciousness, like Damon Lindelof and co. slipping philosophical and literary Easter eggs into Lost. At one point, it seemed as though we were getting new details about the movie every day.
             Of course, Prometheus is hardly the first movie to promote itself on such a massive, frenzied scale. According to its Wikipedia page, The Blair Witch Project has been commonly credited as the first widely released film primarily marketed on the Internet, posting fake police reports and interviews on its official website and sparking widespread, online discussions about its authenticity. Since then, numerous movies, such as Paranormal Activity and District 9, have turned to social networking sites and other avenues for viral advertising in order to attract an audience.  

 How can you not want to see a movie that uses ads like this?

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Prometheus explores the mysteries of life – or does it?

One of the great mysteries of our time – or at least the past year – has been solved. Ridley Scott’s insanely secretive new sci-fi thriller Prometheus is indeed a loose prequel to his 1979 classic Alien. The cryo-sleep capsules. The obligatory ambiguous android. The slow title reveal. The mysterious alien spacecraft many viewers will remember from the original movie. The connections are much too obvious to be ignored, putting an end to months of speculation fueled by deliberately cryptic trailers, viral videos and promotional interviews. In fact, the undeniable presence of Alien DNA underlying the story may be one of the only things the movie manages to make clear, and even so, there is a plot point or two that doesn’t quite add up.

If that sounds like a brazen put-down, it is – sort of. Full disclosure: I’ve been intensely excited about Prometheus for months, ever since that first spine-tingling teaser trailer was released, but as much as I would like to gush over and rave about the final product, I can’t deny that, narratively, the film is a bit of a mess. The script, written by polarizing Lost show-runner Damon Lindelof, takes some rather befuddling leaps in logic, and certain character motivations are either weakly hinted at or never really explained at all.

That said, though it may not sound like it thus far in this review, I enjoyed the movie, and luckily, most of the plot holes don’t distract from what’s going on onscreen, only becoming evident upon subsequent musings. Part gory monster/horror flick, part cerebral meditation on faith, humanity’s origins and all life’s other Big Questions, Prometheus is endlessly compelling, thankfully deviating from the slow pacing and ponderous tone of the original. Ambitious and visually breathtaking, it effectively generates both an intense sense of dread and genuine awe, sometimes in the same scene. A fair number of moments, especially a sequence involving an emergency C-section that is disturbing, to say the least, in its can’t-look-away gruesomeness, are guaranteed to linger in the minds of audiences long after the theater lights come back on.

Like in any monster movie, the aliens (who, in this case, are also accompanied by the ever-enigmatic Engineers, a species of creatures that might have created mankind) are only as interesting as the people fighting them, and the crew of this particular ship happens to have been very well-chosen. After making her Hollywood debut with a thankless role in last year’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo star Noomi Rapace gets her first lead role in an American movie as Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, the inquisitive and driven archaeologist who, along with lover Dr. Charlie Holloway (played by charming relative newcomer and Tom Hardy look-alike Logan Marshall-Green) sets up the mission that takes our heroes to the planet LV-223 (not the same planet that served as the main setting for Alien, as observant fans will notice), where they encounter said aliens and the Engineers. With her surprisingly melodic voice and unique, sophisticated beauty, she brings conviction and a subtle vulnerability to her portrayal of a fiercely determined woman who struggles to stave off despair as what was initially a scientific exploration collapses into a fight for survival. Also worth noting: with his piercing blue eyes, suave yet unflappable demeanor and uncanny ability to convey nuanced, contradictory emotions without letting them fully surface on his face or in his voice, Michael Fassbender, who plays the android David, represents one of those rare instances of absolutely pitch-perfect casting. Furthermore, as the enigmatic and bitter Meredith Vickers, Charlize Theron is at her ice-cold, calculating best, the character’s disappointing end notwithstanding.

While it is far from a masterpiece and the murkiness of the plot, much of it possibly intentional, will likely infuriate many a viewer, Prometheus is still utterly fascinating and well worth watching. It’s a theater experience you probably won’t soon forget.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman: Insert Apple Pun Here

CE Jenkins
            Snow White and the Huntsman made for a good palate cleanser between my third (and hardly final) viewing of Avengers. It had some things going for it that propelled it above the generic action/fantasy movie crowd, but its weaker elements did everything in their power to drag it back down again. Also, I’m going to be referring to it as “SWATH” from this point forward, because come on, awesome acronym much?

             SWATH was strongest when it stuck to its fairy tale roots. At times it managed to capture, or at least allude to, the eerie beauty and brutality of the old stories as imagined by the Grimm brothers. But then the characters got thrown into a bunch of fight scenes, and then Chris Hemsworth was Thor with an axe.