Tag Archives: Film

Winner Takes None: a Question of a Darker “Hunger Games”

So last night I went to see The Hunger Games. If you’re wondering what my opinion was, I thought it was a good movie, even great in places, especially toward the beginning.

But I’m not writing this post as a review. Rather I’m writing because there was one moment, one single line of dialogue in the movie that really made me think. The moment I’m talking about is when the president of Pan America meets with the man running the Hunger Games T.V. show. (I don’t remember their names, so if you read the book and you’re screaming at your computer screen right now that their names are Mr. Flompy and the Great High Wimglomer I’m terribly sorry. [Yes, that’s right, I saw the movie without reading the book. In my defense I will only say that I tried to read the book and found the style of writing less than appealing]).

The President asks Game Show Host Guy, “Do you ever wonder why we have a winner? If the point of making these kids fight to the death is to keep the Districts in line, then why not round up 24 of them each year and execute them?” And then he goes on with some cliched claptrap about hope and how it’s more powerful than fear and blah blah blah that’s not what I’m talking about.

Instead this is the thing that got the gears going in my head: what if everything about the Hunger Games was the same except for one thing? What if the winner didn’t get honor and riches? What if, after it was all said and done, the last man standing was rounded up and shot?

What would you do?

Let’s make a few stipulations here. First, if you commit suicide, everyone you love gets killed. Second, if 24 hours goes by without a death in the arena all the contestants’ family and loved ones get killed. That way there’s no way out of this, no chance of banding together with your fellow contestants to fight the system.

What would you do?

Would you fight, trying to stay alive for as long as possible knowing that all you could achieve by winning would be living just a few days longer than your opponents? Or would you choose to die sooner rather than later so that your last few days would not have to be spent hunting and being hunted?

This is the question that has infected my brain since seeing The Hunger Games and now I’m sneezing the memetic virus your way. It’s not an easy question, not for me anyway. But perhaps that’s what makes it so compelling.

Bizzaro Film Review: Rubber

Man, I do not know what to say about this movie. And don’t get me wrong. It’s not like I don’t have an opinion here. The problem is, that I’ve got two of them. One opinion is that this film is sheer cinematic brilliance. The second is that it is the worst kind of pretentious crap.

And the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced both opinions are right.

Rubber is a film about a killer tire. It is also a film about the way people expect a film to be made, and why they’re willing to accept some breaks from reality but not others. I think.

Therefore I am.

The movie opens with a shot of a dirt road with chairs standing of the middle of it, looking vaguely like some kind of surrealist painting. Then a car pulls onto the road and swerves back and forth hitting every chair, just so, making it fall over without doing any damage.

At this point you’re probably wondering what this shot has to do with anything. Luckily the car pulls up in front of the camera, and a man dressed as a sheriff gets out of the trunk and explains it, saying that in all films there are certain elements which are included for “no reason” and that this is a film that explores the deeper nature of that practice. Then it is revealed that instead of addressing the camera, the man was in fact addressing a group of people who are getting ready to watch the movie happen in real-time with binoculars in the desert. Then a discarded tire wakes up and starts rolling around killing things.

Yes. It’s that kind of movie.

Probably the most interesting aspect of the film is the continued interaction between the sheriff and the viewers. And when I say, “continued interaction” I mean, “repeated murder attempts.” I would guess that this was supposed to symbolize something about the artist/viewer relationship, but since we are assured that this is a film about things that happen in films for no reason I’m gonna say that he’s probably doing it just to be weird.

And in the end, it kinda works.

Rubber isn’t what you’d call a good film, but it is a film that sticks in your mind and makes you think.The cinematography is masterful and though the bizarre nature of the film wears out its welcome after a while, luckily it doesn’t overstay for too long, wrapping up at a neat 82 minutes.

It’s an unusually accessible arthouse flick, that toys with questioning the very nature of fiction. It is both delightfully playful and utterly serious, leaving the viewer wondering whether he should be laughing or thinking.

And the answer is, as always, probably both.

Bizzaro Film Review: Grace

If you’ve seen this poster I think you pretty much get why I watched this movie. I mean seriously, that’s a baby bottle filled with blood. How are you gonna pass that up? And for once, the movie behind the visual lives up to every hint of weirdness and horror promised by the poster.

You can sum up Grace‘s premise in two words: Zombie. Baby.

Here’s the scoop: a mother conceives a child and carries it almost to term, but then a horrific car crash results in the deaths of her husband and the baby in her womb. The mother is devastated, but decides she wants to carry the dead baby to term. And when the baby is born she loves it back to life. Yeah, I know it sounds stupid, but trust me, somehow, in this movie, it works.

But as we’ve learned from the master himself “sometimes dead is better.” Because baby Grace came back…different. Outwardly she still looks like a normal human child, but instead of feeding off her mother’s milk she thirsts…for BLOOD.

What, too dramatic? Okay, I’ll back off a bit.

And not just any blood either. Baby Grace needs human blood. Oh, and did I mention that the flies are gathering in swarms around her crib?

But in spite of her thirst for blood, baby Grace isn’t the monster in this movie. She’s just a baby. She’s got no special powers, nothing noticeably unnerving about her nature. She just needs “special food.”

No, the real monster in this movie is motherhood. No you didn’t read that wrong. This film makes mothers in particular and women in general out to be something truly terrifying. The men who appear don’t seem to be much more than pets, weak willed accessories with slightly more status than a handbag, or slimy unlikable opportunists.

But the women…they cheat, lie, kill, lie some more and generally ruin the audience’s perception of an entire gender. With Grace’s mother at least some of this is understandable. She’s doing the terrible things she does to keep her child alive. But the rest? The scheming grandmother who is so obsessed with motherhood that she forces herself back into lactation, or the former lesbian lover who…well she’s a vegan. I mean she kills people too, but that’s not nearly as terrifying as veganism.

I do not know how such an anti-feminist film got made in the twentieth century.  But I’m glad it did. Because it works. It really works. Its that increasingly rare brand of horror that builds suspense through tone and pacing rather than splashing buckets of gore at the screen, a good reminder that little things can still be scary.

Little things like flies. Crawling into a baby’s nostril.

If that sounds like your cup of Earl Grey then give this movie a shot. It will unnerve you. But more importantly it will make you think.

Collaboration Station

The writer is a mythological creature. He exists in the public mind as an anomaly, some mad genius hunched over a keyboard, fueled by coffee and whiskey, desperately churning out words of breathtaking brilliance. And when his labours are done he sends his work off to the publishers and they print it.

And he’s not real.

I’m not sure what it is about that view of the writer that is so enticing, but the truth is it just doesn’t work that way.

Most preposterous to me is this notion that the writer is an island, that he works alone to build his worlds of fancy, staking out new frontiers without regard for anyone or anything else.  For a long time I bought into that notion myself. Sure, maybe I needed help with the editing and rewrite process, but the initial draft? That was all me, baby.

Only I found an anomaly, a sticking point that made me wonder about the whole magical notion of writing. See, a while back I was watching the special features on one of the Pixar films and there was a segment about how they developed their stories. I clicked on it, half expecting to see some boring shots of some guy at his typewriter pounding out the script.

What I found instead was something of a revelation. The guys at Pixar had the entire movie planned out on little note cards with each card depicting a different element of a scene. There were maybe five or six of them in this one room talking and asking questions and arguing about the best way to move the story forward.

And I thought to myself, “Why don’t people write books like this?”

Of course the  obvious answer is that books are written and movies are visual, that visual mediums require more planning, more focus, more detail than written mediums. And while there is an element of truth to that argument, I think it misses the bigger picture entirely.

No one makes a movie by taking a camera out onto the street and looking for something to point it at. Well maybe someone does. But he’s probably French or something so he doesn’t count.

Point being that there’s very little room for the “magic” of writing in the movie world. There are a thousand little pieces that have to fit together, and the writing has to recognize that. In the making of a movie, the importance of the writer is set aside, and the importance of the story is elevated.

And I’m here to suggest that maybe we should take a crack at working with the same mindset on our books, and even, dare I say it? collaborating with other writers from the very beginning.

All of this has really been my long and drawn out way of announcing that I’ve started work on a new story with Ellie Soderstrom. We’ve been on the phone for hours in the last few days hammering out details of character and story, and despite my natural phobia of outlining the very nature of this project has forced me to sit down with a notebook and start sketching out plot details.

What I’ve found thus far is that collaboration is a powerful tool indeed. The way ideas can resonate in two minds, bounding back and forth building up power beyond what either could have imbued them with independently is nothing short of wondrous.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with writing alone. I’ve done almost all of my writing solo up until now. But if you can find a partner who you trust and respect I would challenge you to let go of a little of your independence and see if they can’t help you make your story that much better. I think the results may surprise you.

The Fine Art of Caring

Someone recently asked me what my vice was. At first the question took me off guard. I mean, I can’t very well tell the guy that I’m an alien overlord on the planet Chogoth and that under my cruel tyranny tens of millions of innocents have died. I tend to like to keep that kind of thing under wraps.

So I hemmed and hawed for a minute before I came up with this gem: “I like watching scathing reviews of bad movies on the internet.” Which has the added bonus of being true.

I’m not sure why I like watching people scream about how bad a movie is. I only know that for me it’s oddly compelling entertainment. But last week, I watched one review in particular that really made me mad.

In this review Matthew Buck AKA Film Brain was lambasting 2012, the disaster epic directed by the famously infamous Roland Emeric.  Now if you haven’t seen this movie, trust me its dumb. It’s fun in its way, but it’s really really DUMB.

However I found myself taking issue with the reviewer over one particular point of criticism. He complained that a film about the destruction of the earth was too focussed on one particular family. Millions of people were dying like rats, but it only seemed to matter if this one family made it out okay.

At first this seems like a legitimate complaint. After all, we see buildings collapsing and cars falling from bridges and all manner of mass destruction, such that by the end of the movie it’s clear that billions are dead. In those kinds of circumstances who cares if one family made it out alive? But from a story perspective at least, I would argue that 2012 gets this one right.

Why? Because we don’t have the capacity to care as much about huge groups of people suffering and dying as we do for individuals. For any kind of disaster to have an impact on us we need to be close to it. The closer we are, the more it affects us.

For instance, several years back a huge tsunami crashed ashore on the rim of the Indian Ocean. Hundreds of thousands of people died. It was one of the worst natural disasters in recent memory. But I can tell you that the tornadoes that recently devastated an area of Alabama just a few miles from where I live impacted me emotionally more than the tsunami did. And if my own mother was to die in a car accident, that would affect me most of all.

Why? Because I have a personal connection to her. No, it doesn’t make strictly logical sense to care for one more than you care for thousands, but we aren’t strictly logical beings.

That’s why films like 2012 focus on families and individuals. Because those stories are the ones we care about. We connect to the world on a personal level. And the same is true with all stories. As writers we need to understand that.

All great stories are ultimately about individuals. And since we’re talking movies, I’ll tell you that my favourite example of this in recent memory is Inception. It’s a big budget action flick with mind bending twists and an eclectic cast of characters. But if you boil it all down its a story about one man trying to get home to his kids.

That’s all.

The fate of the world isn’t hanging in the balance. The earth is not being saved from destruction. But one of the reasons that Inception works is because it realizes that personal crisis matters more than global catastrophe.

That doesn’t mean that we writers can’t craft an epic story of global proportions, but we must always, always, always, remember that the personal story, the individual stakes, must matter more than the global stakes.

Give your readers a reason to connect with your protagonist as a person. Make them care about his struggle.  Everything else will fall into place.

Bizzaro Film Review: Primer

Today we’re diving into the world of celuloid stories again to talk about one of my favourite movies ever. It’s definitely up there in the top three duking it out with Brick and The Fall.

Primer is a movie about time travel. No, that’s wrong. Primer is the movie about time travel.

This is the setup: a group of engineers are working on decreasing the effect of gravity, when two them discover that the machine they’ve invented actually makes things become “untethered” in time. This means that things inside the machine swing back and forth through time like a pendulum for whatever duration of time that the machine is turned on. If a person enters the machine he can time his exit for the back-swing and come out in the past.

But this ain’t your granpa’s time machine. There are rules. The machine won’t let you go further back in time than the moment that it was switched on. For instance you could start the machine now, and two days later get in it and travel back to now, but you can’t go beyond those limits, which means no going back to see the dinosaurs. Also, travel backward in time is just like travelling forward, ie if you want to go 24 hours into the past, you have to sit inside the machine for 24 hours.

This is a film that will make you think. You will not understand it all on the first viewing. You won’t understand it all on the second viewing. I recently watched this movie for the fifth or sixth time, and I still saw something new, something that made me rethink everything I thought I knew about the story. This is that kind of movie.

But more than just being a thinking man’s movie about time travel, Primer is a study in power, because ultimately that’s what the ability to travel through time represents. The person who made the most recent “revision” to the timeline is the one holding all the cards. This subtle struggle for power creates an ever-increasing strain on the friendship of the two engineers who designed the machine.

However, for me at least, the story contained within the film is only half as interesting as the story of the film itself, and the making of Primer is a fascinating tale in and of itself. If you look at the film’s budget on Wikipedia, you will see that it was made for a scant six thousand dollars. Basically the only thing the in the budget was the film. All the acting, filming, and everything else was done by the friends and family of the director.

And it looks great. In spite of the limited budget, the visual aesthetic of the film is strikingly beautiful. The “actors” all portray their characters perfectly. This is the film that you watch and wonder how that Hollywood with all of its millions still manages to get it wrong time after time.

Bottom line, if you like to think, you should watch this film. It’s an incredible example of the power of storytelling and a reminder that anyone with a vision to share can create something wonderful.

The Top Secret Guide to Storytelling

Once upon a time I used to have way more free time. Back before I grew up, got a job, and got into this writing thing, I had to look around and try to find things to keep me occupied.

I’m kinda hating the former me, just thinking about it.

Anyway, one of the things I used to do to flush my valuable time down the toilet was to watch the directors commentaries on DVDs. I don’t know what it was that compelled me to do this. On the whole listening to directors commentaries is about as interesting as watching paint dry. But one of them taught me something that has stuck with me to this very day.

It was the commentary for Top Secret that unveiled this incredible revelation. If you’ve never heard of Top Secret it’s a comedy made by the same guy who made Airplane If you’ve never heard of Airplane then you’re dead to me.

The guys on the commentary were talking about what made Airplaine such a success and what it was about Top Secret that had resulted in its relative failure. Now keep in mind that Airplane and Top Secret are both off-the-wall joke-a-minute comedies. Their worlds are completely nonsensical constructs that allow for the most bizzare situations imaginable to pass unremarked upon by the rest of the characters in the world.

So what was the difference between Airplane and Top Secret? Where the jokes funnier in Airplane? Did it have a better production value?

According to the directors it was none of these things. The thing that made Airplane a better film than Top Secret was story.

“Story?” you ask. “That’s the crucial element? In an unbelievably off the wall movie like Airplane? Surely you’re joking!”

I’m not joking. And don’t call me Shirley.

See, Top Secret had some semblance of setting and there were tons of jokes, but there was nothing memorable about the characters, and no real sense of what they were trying to accomplish.

Conversely in Airplane, we know exactly who the characters are and what they’re trying to accomplish. The former pilot with a fear a flying has to fly a plane with hundreds of sick passengers and his stewardess ex-girlfriend on board and land it safely.

It’s not an original story by any means. In fact it was based scene for scene off of another movie, and even stole some of its dialogue. It doesn’t even come close to taking the story seriously. But the story is there.

And even back then, when being a writer was the farthest thing from my mind, I latched on to that concept.

Story matters.

Special effects, fancy writing style, bizzare characters, none of those things come close to being as important as story. It doesn’t even have to be an original story. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: you’re never going to write a completely original story.

Characters are not stories. Worlds are not stories. Concepts are not stories.

Nothing wrong with those things, but they can’t be central in your mind. Got a great idea for a surreal world, filled with fantastic creatures, where logic works differently, and everyone eats cupcakes? Good. Now push all that to the back of your mind, and figure out the story.

In the end, it’s the only thing that matters.


I realize I’ve been somewhat vague about this idea of the “story.” If you’re interested in specifics I recommend you check out Kristen Lamb’s Blog. When she isn’t preaching the gospel of social media she has great posts detailing how to craft a story that works.

And Another Thing…

So yesterday’s post was about why you shouldn’t be a writer. And despite what some people seemed to think, I was kinda-sorta serious about it. I think there would be less heartache in your lives if more people realized how painful and unpleasant writing can be. Also, there would be less competition for me.

But today I realized I left out another big reason you should eschew the way of the writer.

See, when you become a writer, you start out by reading a lot of books about the craft, about writing smooth prose and getting your structure right. And then, when you write your mind refers back to what you’ve learned and measures it against what you’re creating. And pretty soon, you’ve got this tiny little editor that lives in your brain, and his job is to tell you whether a particular story is working or not.

This little guy is important. He keeps you on the straight and narrow, and he helps to keep you on the straight and narrow with your story. But there’s one problem.

He never shuts up.

I’m not kidding. You will never be able to watch a movie or read a book again without this guy popping up and saying, “Holy cow, can we tone it back on the exposition people? Work some of that information into the story. You’re ruining a perfectly good narrative with your infodumps!”

“But Ethelbert,” you say (all good inner-editors are named Ethelbert) “I just want to read this book. Can’t we save the analysis for another time?”

But Ethelbert just glares at you and keeps going. “Do they think this is good writing? Do they? Did the author apply these adverbs with a trowel?”

And the worst thing is, Ethelbert generally has a point. And since Ethelbert is in your head it only makes sense that you tell someone what Ethelbert it saying.

“That movie failed as a narrative because the protagonist didn’t have any clearly defined goals to accomplish,” you tell your date as your walking out of the theatre. “Also, the villain would have been far more effective if she had been shown to actually care about the protagonist, rather than just being in it for her own good.”

Your date is not impressed.

Seriously. Every time me and my wife get into a movie or TV series I always have to discuss why we like it. I think I spent just as much time talking to my wife about Dexter as I did watching it. I spent hours whining about how annoying and pointless the Lila story arc was, and she’s just nodding going, “Yeah. Uhuh. Whatever.”

I’m boring her to tears and it’s all Ethelbert’s fault.

So again, take my advice. Become an accountant or something. Accountants are way more interesting.

Bizzaro Movie Review: Alice

Yep, you read it right. I’ve gone soft and decided to review one of these moviefilm thingies. Why? you may ask. Mostly it’s because I want to expand your horizons to include a truly unusual and astounding works of celuloid art. Also, it might have a tiny little something to do with the fact that I haven’t quite finished reading the book I had planned for this week.

Alice, a film directed by Jan Svankmajer is a surreal adaptation of the surreal book Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.

But It certainly isn’t the only film adaptation. In fact it would be improper to speak of the impact of this film without acknowledging the efforts that came both before and after. Of course, the Walt Disney animated version of the story is probably the most famous, but according to my research (which consisted of me checking Wikipedia, so there high school teachers) there have been twenty-three different film and television adaptations, the most recent of which was the abomination of cinema directed by Tim Burton.

In fact Burton’s film presents an excellent starting point for understanding just why Jan Svankmajer’s is so brilliant. Burton’s film was a big budget blockbuster, designed to appeal to millions. The problem is that Alice in Wonderland isn’t a very appealing story. In fact, it isn’t truly a story at all. In my view Burton’s main failure was that he tried to inject drama into a narrative that has none.

The mad hatter is not a leader of a rebel army. Alice is not the last best hope for Wonderland. The Jaberwock is not a dragon. And Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum are not not not NOT IN WONDERLAND!

Whew. I’m glad I got that off my chest. Anyway, the main point is, that whatever magic the original story had came from the fact that it wasn’t a story at all, but rather a series of random and surreal events happening in a disjointed almost dreamlike manner. Jan Svankmajer’s Alice gets this. Not only does it get it, it embraces it with open arms.

At one point as I was watching the movie with my wife she asked “Why is Alice hiding from the white rabbit, when before she wanted him to take her with him?”

To which I replied, “This is a movie where stuffed animals come to life. This is a movie with socks that burrow holes through a wooden floor. This a movie with a character that has the body of a crocodile, bird skull for a head and is wearing a Santa hat. There is no reason. That’s the point.”

In fact the pure genius of Alice is that Jan Svankmajer seems to have looked at Lewis Caroll’s original work and said to himself, “You know this isn’t nearly weird enough.” And while the basic plot follows the original text pretty closely, Svankmajer’s visual interpretation of it is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. All the special effects are done with stop motion animation, which, rather than taking away from the movie’s believability adds volumes to its creepy surrealism.

This is definitely not a movie you want to show to your kids. Unless you want your kids to have the best nightmares ever. Tim Burton thinks he’s got unique visual style? He’s got nothing on Jan Svankmajer. Don’t believe me? This is Tim Burton’s rendering of the caterpillar.

This is Jan Svankmajer’s version of the same character:

Tell me that isn’t just wrong.

Bottom line. I liked this film. Sort of. In a squirming uncomfortable squicked out kind of way. As with most of the books I review here it probably isn’t for everyone. But if you love the original book as much as I do, if you’ve yearned to see a movie made by someone who understands the original source material, then you owe to yourself to see this movie. I promise you there will never be another like it.

The Truth about True Love

When I was growing up I heard a lot about this concept of “True Love.” It was everywhere, in movies, in books, practically smothering me with it’s syrupy goodness. As near as I could tell, True Love was a perfect idealized love that existed in and of itself, a thing wholly perfect, without beginning and without end.

But about two and a half years ago, I got married to the woman of my dreams. Before I met my wife I never believed in the idea of “the one.” I just thought people looked around until they found the best possible match for them and settled for that. I never in a million years would have believed that fate or destiny played a role in any of it.

But all that changed when I met my wife. She was…perfect. Well, maybe not perfect exactly, but perfect for me. We could sit and talk for hours on end and feel like only a few minutes had passed. I knew I had found my soul mate. So I asked her to marry me.

And now after two wonderful years of being married to my soul mate I’m here to tell you that I’ve yet to spot that mythical beast named True Love. But that’s okay, because I’ve found something better. Something real. Something I like to call Real Love. And this is what it looks like.

Real Love is hard work. In a way, it’s like tending a garden: it’s something that must constantly be nurtured day in and day out, and it isn’t always fun. You have to water it and feed it and weed it out on a daily basis. It’s not a glamorous job, but the fruits are always worth the work.

Real love is boring. You know that fireworks romance stuff you see in the movies? Yeah, turns out you can’t believe everything you see in the movies. Who knew? Real love, if it is going to last, has to become a routine. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be moments of fire and passion, but on the whole it’s about staying consistent every day, no matter what happens.

Real love is not about feelings. Because, let me tell you something, if you are in a relationship for the long term there will come times when you won’t have that warm and bubbly feeling in your heart. But real love keeps going even when it doesn’t feel like it. Emotions are flexible, they change like the wind. Real love is stronger than that. Real love is a decision.

Real love is every day. Ever heard of Happily Ever After? Well guess what, turns out that’s fiction too. There’s no magical sunset you can ride off into where all your troubles will be over. You have to keep going, keep working, keep doing everything you can to shore up your love against all the storms that will come and try to tear it apart. Real Love it never done till you’re dead.

Real love is forgiving. Because, let’s face it, there are going to be some fights. And that’s okay to a point. People disagree. It’s one of the things we do best. And sometimes people screw up. I’ve given my wife plenty of legitimate reasons to be angry with me over the years. The key isn’t in never having a fight. The key to real love is being able to work out your differences and imperfections.

Real love takes sacrifice. It might seem like a nice idea to have a love that magically springs up from the depths of the heart and is ever impacted the realities of life. But the truth is that kind of love, if it existed, wouldn’t be worth anything. Because it wouldn’t cost anything. And real love always costs something.

So yeah, maybe Real Love isn’t the wonderful and perfect ideal maybe you’ve been told about all your life, but that’s okay. Because Real Love is…real. For all of it’s flaws and imperfections it means something. And for what it’s worth, I wouldn’t give it up for all the True Love in the world.