Sunday, June 28, 2009

"Truly Madly Deeply" [B-]

I needed to see something with a strong psychological theme (as in someone is crazy) and this sort of fits the bill. Odd that the entire time I watched it I was thinking it was decidedly from the late 70s or early 80s. It turns out to be from 1991--almost 20 years ago, but not 30. I suppose it's partly because it was decidedly British (not in a bad way).

What worked: the acting and the dialog. The writing is crisp and often poignant and even often humorous, even though a main topic is death and grief.

What did not work: major parts of the plot hinge on allusion and inference, rather than storytelling. This left me somewhat confused about what was supposed to be happening and why. And the whole 70s vibe.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Not a Film Critic

No, I'm not a film critic. That's why if anyone actually reads this blog, they won't find any actual film reviews. What you will find are occasional film opinions. These are really just notes to myself about why I may or may not have liked a film. This is, after all, a personal weblog, not really meant to be read by anybody but me. Right?

One reason I'm not a film critic is that I am too much of a film fan, even of bad films, to be that critical of them. I am truly fascinated and enraptured by almost any moving picture.

Another reason I'm not going to attempt to write actual reviews is that such things usually include a summary of the plot. This is something I am loath to do. After all, if these are just notes to myself, I've already seen the film. I don't need any reminding of the essence of the plot. If I do, I can certainly find it elsewhere. And if I did attempt to summarize, I would more than likely write too little or too much, rather than just enough.

Finally, I'm not going to write critical reviews because I don't like being critical in general. There are plenty of other people out there, and in this case those other people are paid professionals, who accomplish plenty of criticism on my behalf. I'd much rather err on the side of nice-ness.

notafilmcritic: "Inkheart" [B]

I was very much looking forward to watching this film, even with the mixed (to be generous) reviews it was receiving. I love books and I loved the idea of characters coming out of books into the real world. And I like, or don't mind, the presence of Brendon Fraser.

Inkheart is a pleasant fantasy film, nicely executed on many levels. There were quite a few nods to the classics, especially for some reason, The Wizard of Oz (Toto, flying monkeys, a tornado, and Dorothy's farmhouse all make appearances). Perhaps it would have been even better if characters from these real books would have taken center stage, rather than those from a third rate novel that can't even be kept in print.

I can see why the 'real' film critics generally marked it down. The directing sagged at times. The screenplay was a bit rough, with too many characters for too little (too much?) plot and not enough genuine peril. That, perhaps, was on purpose, in order to bring in the kids. But in that case the plot was certainly too byzantine. It was almost as convoluted as the streets in the bad guy's mountain village. So even though the film worked for me, I can see most adults resisting its charms.

Monday, June 22, 2009

I Love Soundtracks

I like to listen to motion picture soundtrack recordings while I'm writing. I find it lends a motion pictury quality to what I'm doing, whether it's an actual screenplay or even a novel.

One big advantage that most soundtrack music has over other music for me is that there are no words. Lyrics mess up my writing, because my brain wants to listen to them instead of putting my own words onto the paper (or screen). In the same way, if the music requires some attention, like some jazz and most classical, it ruins my concentration on the words.

I do listen to other instrumental music while writing. Good old surf guitar music (e.g., Dick Dale or the Surfaris) is good for a pick-me-up, while still avoiding the whole lyric issue. And jazz. And some classical.

But what's playing right now is pretty typical, it's a Lalo Schifrin tune from the "Mission: Impossible" television show. Nope, now it's an instrumental version of "Thunderball". I've got Windows Media Player on random, so soon I'll be hearing something from a cowboy movie or maybe something more sci-fi.

It's interesting to see other writer's posting there writing music preferences. But most of them would never work for me, because they involve, again, words. See, now Shirley Bassey is singing "Diamonds Are Forever", so I'll have to retag that track to not play when I just want "Soundtrack" music.

notafilmcritic: "Terminator Salvation" [C+]

This movie was not as bad as I feared. From the reviews and analysis that I'd read, I thought it was going to be an unintelligible mess. Christian Bale as John Connor was going to show up in places he wasn't meant to and be useless and Sam Worthington (as Marcus, the part Bale was wanted for) would be the heart of the story. In fact, John Connor was an important part of the story and helped move it along. This much was right: Marcus was the heart of the story. Oh, and it is an unintelligible time-travel mess.

You've got time-traveling John Connor trying to operate in the future based on Sarah Connor's semi-prophetic cassette tapes from the past. He should have been much more concerned with the present. You've got time-traveling Marcus awakened in the future after being lost in some weird government cyborg experiment for fifteen years (or is he?). And you've got time-traveling Kyle Reese, who's supposed to go back in time and be John Connor's father, doing his "I Am Legend" schtick in a wiped out Los Angeles as "the resistence". And you've got SkyNet an AI we can only make films about leap-frogging about forty or more years of technological advance in only nine to gain real artificial intelligence, advanced robotics and metallurgy, and some pretty cool flying machines.

It's a mess. Yet, it's all done with such polish and aplomb that I was again willing to turn over my two hours (including trailers) and $10 (!) and come out the other side glad I did it. It's not a science fiction film I could recommend to a non-fan, even one that likes action. It's not an SF film I would place anywhere near the likes of the original Terminator, or Alien, or Blade Runner. But it wasn't bad.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Private Detective Couples

While I work on plotting a new screenplay, I'm also thinking about the next project. I'm pretty sure this will be a revisit (actually complete rewrite) of my first ever novel, written for National Novel Writing Month, which was (supposed to be) a bit of a thriller/mystery. I've often thought of taking an underlying theme of that, old cars, and building a series out of that. The idea appeals to me.

It seems that in order to really do that, I'll probably have to follow the herd and center the series on a single protagonist. As I thought that through, it sure seemed like what I was coming up with was yet-another-loner-hero. Is that what the world needs? Is that all it wants? Sometimes it looks that way. Even the women detectives I've read lately are almost just female versions of the same stereotype.

What if I did something different? What if I did a husband/wife team of detectives? How often has this been done? Is it too off the mark for the market? These are the questions I need to answer. I put part of the question out there to Facebook and Twitter and got a couple of answers from folks that are not really writer's market analysts. But they point to the only ones I could think of, too:
  • Nick and Nora Charles from "The Thin Man"
  • Jennifer and Jonathan Hart from "Hart to Hart"
  • Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro from "Gone Baby Gone", etc. (not married, but a couple)
Is that about it? I'm just getting started on the research. I know I don't want to spend much energy on this question, because it doesn't really matter that much. Except, I still wonder if it's different enough or too different.

Friday, June 19, 2009

notafilmcritic: "OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies" [B+]

Outstanding spy spoof in the tradition of "Get Smart" and "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.", laced with plenty of "The Pink Panther" played by a real Frenchman. It was a little disconcerting to start the film with WWII era Nazis speaking French with English sub-titles. But once one realizes what's happening, one adjusts. One thing is for sure, this film is not subtle. The music, the script, the attitude, and the stupidity are all over the top. It's wonderful. I can't wait to see the next film in the series.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

notafilmcritic: "Dan In Real Life" [A-]

This is the way to write a love story. Real people. Real situations. Real consequences. Real love, both romantic and familial. I'm not the biggest fan of romantic comedies of this 'ilk'. That's because they usually come off as grating melodramatics or are based on flimsy 'meet cuts' or play out in improbable, unmotivated vignettes. But Dan In Real Life misses all of those bumps and potholes and comes out at the end an amusing and warm story that seems populated by people you might actually know and doesn't try to resolve all the questions. Recommended.

notafilmcritic: "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" [C+]

I read that Lucas moved this from television to the theaters because of how good the first few episodes of the tv series looked on the big screen. After watching it on my big screen at home, I can see a little of that. In fact, that's what moves it from a C- to a C+. But I'm glad I didn't pay money to sit through this extended Saturday morning cartoon in the movie theater. The even bigger screen wouldn't have made it that much better. For me the most obvious thing wrong with this disaster starts with the script, including the characterizations. Everything is so geared toward a young audience that it hurts. The youngling padawan for Anakin. The smart-mouth repartee. The baby Hutt. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. Anakin is not right. Jabba is not right. I can't think of a character that's really done right (as in matching the movies). But the animation was interesting.

Friday, June 12, 2009

notafilmcritic: "The Darjeeling Limited" [B-]

Three brothers set out on a spiritual quest in India a year after their father's funeral. Of course, what they find is not what they expect. But they learn about life, death, family, and each other. Presented in a meta-reality style similar in feeling to the director's previous "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou", this film is never quite as potent or funny as the earlier work. The acting and directing have the potential of being great, but the script never quite gets us to care about the characters as much as we should. The series of adventures the brothers have come across as flimsily threaded vignettes, rather than a compelling story. The meandering style allows the viewer's eye and mind to also wander a bit too much over the background characters and setting. Even so, I found myself drawn in to the brothers' misadventures and strangely satisfied with the film's almost predictable ending.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Quick, Good, or Cheap. Pick Two

I was recently reminded of this old project planning adage and it got me to wondering if it applied to my current occupation as a part-time writer. I've seen it worked out time and again in various software projects at the places where I work full-time. Please stay with me as I think this through.

Good + Quick = Expensive

This makes sense to me. In order for a writing project to get done quickly and well, you need one or more experienced writers focusing on it full time. The bigger the project or the quicker you want it, the more (or better) writers you'll need (although there is certainly a point of diminishing return, as shown by Brooks in The Mythical Man-Month). This is probably why most television shows use a small army of writers to get a teleplay written every week--divide and conquer. Plus, the more experienced the writer the more expensive (in theory) they will be.

This doesn't preclude, of course, the serendipity of an experienced (or even inexperienced) writer singlehandedly pouring out a complete and polished first draft in an amazingly short period of time. But from what I've been reading and experiencing, that is the exception and not the rule.

Good + Cheap = Slow

This seems to be where I am at, no matter how much I'd like to change it. Since there is only one of me and I am still learning how this writing stuff works and I have only so many hours in the day (of which many are filled by my day job and other obligations and desires) and I want what I write to be good, it's taking me a while to get things done. I've been working on the outline for a new screenplay for over a month now and it's still not quite there. Likewise the planning for a couple of novels. I did manage to whack out a first draft of a short story in a week. But it still needs a rewrite or two (or more) before it's ready to submit to anyone other than my wife and friends.

On the other hand, there is a hidden cost to constantly not having finished a project (or at least a step of the project). There is a point where (A) it's just got to be done (no more procrastinating) and (B) it's good enough. This is the battle I'm fighting.

Quick + Cheap = Inferior

As I wrote above, there are probably times where a single writer can finish a great work in a short amount of time, even if they are inexperienced (I've read that Mickey Spillane wrote his first novel, I, The Jury, in nine days, disregarding any arguments about how great it is, it's certainly been influential). But again, that's the exception, and not the rule, and is not what should be expected of most writing most of the time. If I were to bang out a novel in nine days, it would probably be crap. Heck, I've knocked a novel in 30 days during National Novel Writing Month, and all four times it's been crap. But I've learned about writing and about my writing. And now I've at least got four (almost) book length manuscripts saved to my hard drive.

Where does that leave me? I'm a part-time writer. I'm just way too practical and settled in my lifestyle to walk away from a high paying job and write full time. But I've been bitten by the writing bug, so I'm going to keep on writing. I just have keep my perspective and not expect to have a novel or screenplay pop out of my computer every few months. I also have to read more books, read less Internet nonsense, and write more words.

Writers Needed (1909)

In Scientific American for June 2009: 100 Years Ago

JUNE 1909
WRITERS NEEDED— “Moving pictures are exhibited in about ten thousand theaters and halls in the United States. With the rapid spread of this new amusement has also come a marked change in the public taste. Spectators were once quite content with a view of factory employees going to and from their work, the arrival and departure of railway trains, and similar scenes. Nowadays, a more or less coherent story must be unfolded, for which reason the makers of moving pictures have been compelled to write plays (or at least to conceive them) and to have them acted before the camera.”

Monday, June 8, 2009

notafilmcritic: "American Gangster" [A-]

On Twitter, I noted that American Gangster was good, but seemed like just a very long episode of Kojak. It's obviously more than that. But on a character and plot level, I still think that's all it is.

Despite being three hours long and covering a number of years (a decade?), I don't recall any significant character development in either Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) or Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe). About the closest thing I see to that is that Richie suddenly decides that he really is a bit of an SOB and lets his ex-wife take their son where she wants. And Frank, once he determines he's got no other option, suddenly decides to play along with the good cops, in order to take down the bad cops and the mob. But that actually seems like more of an appendix to the rest of the film. I suppose that's what one gets in a long police procedural based on actual events.

Otherwise, this is an amazing period piece, deftly acted, and smoothly directed. I totally bought the grimy New York underbelly of the 70's, the junkies, the crooked cops, the actual grime. Recommended.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

notafilmcritic: "Cocoon" [B+]

Rewatched this last night as part of my research for a new screenplay (no, of something original). It was just as good as I thought I remembered, even though I had forgotten huge chunks of the story. I was impressed by the amount of story the writer and director got out of just the people and the effect the 'magic' was having on them without resorting to too many visual effects.

In fact, it seemed like the movie bogged down and got a little silly when the emphasis was on showing the aliens and their spacecraft. That could have been edited down even more. I mean, what was the deal with Kitty's 'soul' bouncing off the rafters before it finally shot into Jack? Foreplay? I didn't get it. I don't think they did justice to that couple.

That may also be a good demonstration of a rule of thumb I was just reading about how many main characters a film can support, which is no more than 4 to 6. In this film, you had the 2 main aliens, Jack the boat skipper, the 3 main geezers, their 3 wives/girlfriends, another geezer couple, and a grandson. That's about 11 people that figured into the plot in some way. Plus there were assorted other aliens, geezers and geezerettes, and the old folks home staff. Too many people for the way the story was structured, I think. This resulted in several throw-away scenes and dead-ends.

But it's still a good film and very recommended.

Monday, June 1, 2009

mini-review: "Ghost Town" [B]

This movie was surprisingly good. It even had the boss saying it was cute, and I didn't expect her to like it at all. One of the things I liked the most was watching how the script carried off the delicate balancing act of keeping us with the characters and their 'real' predicament while also taking us into the entirely absurd world of seeing ghosts. The film was never afraid of either aspect and was better for it. It was also a pleasure to watch two characters given the time to warm up to one another without going instantly from 'I hate you' to 'I love you'. One downside: I never quite bought Téa Leoni being interested in Ricki Gervais. Maybe they needed to make her a little more of the nerdy academic.

mini-review: "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian" [B-]

I liked this movie. It was an enjoyable way to spend an evening, the sequences were fun to watch, but it had too many plot holes. It started with the obviously preposterous setup used to send the characters from New York to D.C. The rest are all too numerous to enumerate in a mini-review, but basically boil down to my befuddlement over how Washington D.C. could seem so utterly devoid of security. What? There's nobody around to notice that a 50 foot tall Abe Lincoln is wandering the streets? Fun is fun, but... huh?