Monday, July 7, 2014

Goodnight, Dear Void

Some movies you see once, and move on. But some others are just so darn re-watchable—and so quotable. As much as I adore TV and books, there’s nothing like a movie for quotability. There are a few films that I’ve seen far more times than I could ever count. There are certain lines I think of every time a similar event happens in the real world. For instance, if anyone ever mentions trouble digesting dairy, in my head I immediately hear Meg Ryan’s character from French Kiss yelling “Lactose intolerannnnncccee!!!” and I picture her asking Kevin Kline to “stop the rocking” of the train.

These moments are burned into my brain forever, some from sheer repetition, but others because the moment, and the words the character spoke in that moment, just fit into this little space in my mind, and my heart.

There are so many quotes I could list, but here are my top five. More than just great movie quotes, if you ask me, these are words to live by.

5. We're all pretty bizarre. Some of us are just better at hiding it, that's all”
-Andrew from The Breakfast Club

In a movie full of quotable lines (provided you’re not watching the censored version on broadcast TV) this one seems to me to really sum up the message of the film. None of these kids really felt like they had it all figured out. The fact that Andrew, one of the two members of the popular clique to be in Saturday detention that fateful day, was the one to say it gives the message even more weight.

4 “Why do I and everyone I love pick people who treat us like we're nothing?"
    “We accept the love we think we deserve.”
-Sam and Charlie, The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Okay, so this movie is based on a book, so it’s cheating a bit, but, wow. What a line. I can’t imagine Charlie’s reply not resonating with everyone who reads/hears it.

3. Donger's here for five hours, and he's got somebody. I live here my whole life, and I'm like a disease.”
-Sam, Sixteen Candles

I have personally recited this one throughout my life. Sam’s grandparents brought their foreign exchange student to her house on the afternoon of her birthday; by nine PM he had a girlfriend. Meanwhile Sam’s had a crush on the same boy for at least a year and (she doesn’t think) he even knows she’s alive. Such a relatable moment (at least for me!)

2. “That's your problem, you don't want to be in love, you want to be in love in a movie.”-Becky, Sleepless in Seattle

The genius of Nora Ephron: I could easily do a top-ten list of just her quotes. This line is so perfect. Who doesn’t want to be in love in a movie? And how many of us at least strongly suspect that romantic books and movies have probably ruined us on some fundamental level?

1. Sometimes I wonder about my life. I lead a small life - well, valuable, but small - and sometimes I wonder, do I do it because I like it, or because I haven't been brave? So much of what I see reminds me of something I read in a book, when shouldn't it be the other way around? I don't really want an answer. I just want to send this cosmic question out into the void. So good night, dear void.”
-Kathleen, You’ve Got Mail.

Ephron again, of course. I love this movie so much. I love these lines (which the protagonist writes in an email to Tom Hanks’s  character) even more. There’s so much here. I feel sad and happy reading these words, every time. It’s amazing that the email/social media world had barely begun when this movie was written, and yet how perfectly does this sentiment still feel today? And then there’s the idea of wondering if we’ve chosen the best life because it’s what we want, or if we haven’t been brave—that part’s got to be timeless.

In a way, every blog post ever written (and most of them were written after this screenplay) is an echo to this idea. Whether or not we receive an answer, there’s something sort of comforting about sending our cosmic questions out into the void.

Goodnight, dear void.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Halt and Catch Fire?

So I’ve been watching the new show Halt and Catch Fire on AMC. I showed up in case it was going to be the new Mad Men, but stayed for the weird retro music and the flashbacks to my childhood. Much as I remember about the real eighties, there’s an alarming amount of beige.

In the show they’re trying their best to design an affordable personal computer that weighs less than fifteen pounds (ha ha we all say as we reach for the smartphones in our pockets). All the characters are very conservative and wear boring (mainly beige) clothes, except for Cameron, a rogue programmer. You can tell she’s a rebel because she listens to Punk Rock Music and wears t-shirts. If they keep up this kind of subtle characterization, this series is sure to garner lots of awards.

I’ll probably stick with it for a bit because for one, it’s a summer series. Let’s face it, the bar is on the low side. Also, watching it makes me remember the early eighties, aka my early childhood. The show has also caused me to consider my strange relationship with computers. For something that barely existed for the first twelve or so years of my life, the computer has become pretty darn important in my life. My laptop is practically an appendage at this point.

My dad, who’s a baby boomer, worked in sales. He told me that one day someone brought a PC into his office, plopped it on his desk and announced something like, “From now on, this is how we do things.” He said that’s essentially what happened to everyone in his generation.

That had to be rough. But my generation’s relationship with computers was a little murkier. We had computers in my high school. I went to a big public school; we had maybe two rooms full of Radio Shack Tandy machines: green cursor, black screen, floppy drive. As a student I remember visiting these strange devices only sporadically. In contrast, I took a typing class (as in, the room was full of typewriters) twice a week.
Sleek, elegant design. Refreshing lack of user-friendly operating system. 
When I was a freshman in college, the school held a ceremonial burning of the library card catalog, and told us to use the computers to find our books. That’s cool, except I’d just finished learning the how to use freaking card catalog in my senior year of high school. 

This kind of crackerjack timing has been the hallmark of my life’s experience with technology. 
The clever title Halt and Catch Fire, though it's supposedly some early bit of programming language--is also kind of a perfect metaphor for technology. Yesterday's amazing new invention is tomorrow's pile of old crap. 

At least until it becomes a collectible, and then you can really clean up on eBay. 

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Cheap Seats

I just finished torturing my freshmen with Romeo and Juliet. I say torture, but a lot of them loved acting out the first scene and learning to stage fight. Some of them didn’t even seem to mind learning about poetry. A handful of them cried when we watched the final scene of the Baz Luhrman movie.

But this year, for the first time since 1996, I had a few students wondering why we were watching the “old” movie.
Now I’ll just let the whole 1996-equals-old business go, and focus instead on the shiny new Romeo and Juliet flick these girls told me about. It came out last year. I’ve seen the trailer a few times.

The thing is, this movie doesn’t really seem all that different from the 1968 Zefferelli version: Romeo is still way too pretty—seriously, you could cut glass on this kid’s cheekbones. In common with the also very pretty Leonard Whiting from the classic flick (who, incidentally, is a dead ringer for Zac Effron—see the proof below), this handsome lad seems to have been selected more for his facility with hair gel and eye sparkle than emoting in iambic pentameter. But, I admit, I only watched the trailer. That’s right, I couldn’t get past the three-minute mark. Because what they seem to have done is, they CHANGED ALL THE WORDS.

When I realized this while showing the trailer to class, one of my students was like, it’s okay, Ms. H—the story’s still the same. And then I freaked out more, because the story itself is actually pretty stupid. For example, our heroes were apparently too dense to figure out that a rope ladder can actually be used to transport more than one person. Everybody knows Shakespeare copied most of his stories anyway. It’s the language that makes this play, and all his others, beautiful and memorable.

But based on what I've seen, this version seems to have eviscerated the play. For one, some lady at the Capulet ball plays Commander Obvious, and explains, for those too dense to grasp this complex, world- famous story that, “Juliet is a Capulet. The  Montagues and the Capulets are MORTAL ENEMIES.”

Oh, good. Because almost nobody has heard of this play, so let’s just make it EXTRA clear.

Then, I guess after he’s murdered Tybalt and all that, Romeo kneels in a church and says,
"What have I done? I've murdered my tomorrow!"

What’s that, Cheekbones? You murdered your tomorrow? Is that what you did? Because nowhere in the play, or anywhere else in Shakespeare that I know of, does anybody murder a tomorrow. This screenwriter has some major cajones: it’s one thing to simplify Shakespeare. It’s quite another to try to out-poetry him. Especially with a line like that.

Some folks may say I’m being too big of a fancy-pants here. But here’s the thing—I love the 1996 version, and not just because Leo DiCaprio can seriously act. It’s modern, and trashy, and not really highbrow at all.* But they kept what was special about the play—the words. It’s worth noting that the cheapest tickets to Elizabethan theatrical performances also offered the best view, right up by the stage. The best seats were in the gallery, which afforded a better chance to hear the words. Today, the best seat in the house is always about being the one with the best view. We make everything look good, but sometimes forget there's more to life. 

I don’t care if you act out Shakespeare’s plays in a modernized Hollywood movie or in your backyard—it doesn’t matter what it looks like—it’s still poetry.

*I have more piece of evidence of my lack of snobbery—if I do end up seeing this new movie, it will be entirely because Ed Westwick of Gossip Girl is in it as Tybalt. I XOXO that guy.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Star-Crossed and Freeze-Dried

I intended to like the new show Star-Crossed. Don’t get me wrong, I fully expected it to be cheesy. The fact is, I enjoy cheese, and the show had many of the elements I enjoy in my cheesy escapist CW viewing: cute aliens! romance! great soundtrack! Unfortunately, this show really only delivers on item 1, cute aliens, and it’s also taking itself way too seriously.

So far the plot is suffering from what I like to call Season-3 disease, but the weird thing is, we’re only on episode 9. Season 3 disease is named after two of my favorite shows, Veronica Mars and Roswell. Both shows were awesome because of the characters in their first two seasons (though the latter started to go off the rails in season 2). But in their final seasons, both became very episodic and more like cookie-cutter versions of their respective genres, mystery and SF. Star-Crossed is already there: they’ve packed the first nine episodes full of science-fiction nonsense, including, but not limited to: an alien plant that cures cancer, a different version of the same alien plant (you just change the name of it by adding the word “black”—so clever!) that kills people, a spaceship crash, a human/alien hybrid baby, and a secret group of aliens who are passing as humans because they’ve had their tattoos removed (more on that last one later).

Roswell had essentially the same premise: the forbidden love between a human girl and an alien boy, but they lost focus when they tried to go big with the sci-fi, giving the alien race a name and a space ship powered by a diamond and all kinds of other crap, which didn’t gel with the romantic elements they’d already put in place. The Star-Crossed aliens already have a name, and it’s pretty moronic: they’re called Atrians, which sounds far too much like the entrance to a building for my taste. All the Atriums have a bunch of tattoos and they are really good swimmers, which made Earth a pretty perfect place to crash land, I guess. Since they look like perfectly hot human models without the tats, a bunch of rebel aliens got theirs removed, although the marks still show up when wet, which means their entire system of espionage can be foiled by a light drizzle.

I guess water is pretty important to this species. There was also a scene last week in which an alien was released from prison, where they had her all dried out.  They led out a seventy-year old alien, put her in a bathtub, and presto! She was like thirty-five and hot. Freeze-dried aliens. So that happened.

I also can’t possibly keep track of which are the good Vestibules and which are the bad ones, because some of them are they are using their bad plant to kill people, which is a real bummer, because, as previously mentioned, these alien boys are in fact super hot. The main character is named Roman, so his parents must have known he was going to crash-land on Earth and maybe they figured he could pretend to be Italian. They actor who portrays him is also thirty-one, and playing a junior in high school, a proud Earth tradition going all the way back to Beverly Hills 90210.

According to the story, Roman is in love with the human girl who saved him when he was a kid, but it’s hard to get invested in the relationship, as the actress who’s playing her seems to have done some training at the Kristen Stewart School of Acting.  I wish she was playing the extraterrestrial. We could watch as the block of wood figures out human emotions and it would be all be much more believable.

I’m still going to tune in next week, hoping that the show manages to go less soft core SF and realizes that no one is tuning into the CW for anything except cute aliens/vampires/werewolves/French princes/mutants in love.
These alien letters in the credits brought to you by Roswell, who did it first. 

Saturday, February 22, 2014

How to Write a Synopsis

Step 0: Make coffee.

Step 1: Figure out what the heck actually happens in the story you haven’t written yet, even though you’re the type of writer who figures out the plot as you write.

ààAfter Step 1 is unsuccessful, find something else useful to do, like clean your room or the kitchen. Sit down to rest, feeling that at least you accomplished something.

ààààThen, it’s Monday and time to go back to work. Work hard all week, then try again with Step 1 the next Saturday—after taking Friday night off to watch Netflix, of course.

Step 1, Take 2: Start writing. When everything sounds cheesy and wrong, send it as an e-mail attachment to your friends, who later confirm that there are numerous problems with the plausibility of the story, just not the same problems you saw.

ààAdd coffee. Start over.

ààààWhen the result is terrible, print it out, because hitting the delete button on a computer just doesn’t provide that satisfying paper-crunching sensation, and you are, after all, a traditionalist.  Crumpling wads of paper also reminds you of movie montages in which five minutes of failing and then trying again leads to ultimate success, which is reassuring.

Step 1A: Make cookies. Eat them.

Step 1B: Make a project playlist. Get lost on iTunes...
ààAccidental online shopping detour.

Step 1, Take 3: Start writing again. Fight urge to go all Office Space on work laptop.
ààBaby name website detour. This is okay. You are searching for a new
character name. This counts as work.

ààààAdd coffee. Are there any cookies in the house?

Step 1, Take 4: Write another draft. This one’s got to be it. You can feel it.

            ààWrite blog post instead.

Step 1, Take 5: Write another draft. This has to end sometime. Might as well be today.
Send out as an email attachment. There will be more revisions, but for now, you are allowed to watch Netflix without feeling like a failure.

(ààMake more cookies.)

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Top Five Mysteriously Disappearing British Accents

It’s hard to be British when you’re a Yank—though lots of actors do give it a try. Maybe it’s because movies and TV shows use British accents to convey not only “set in the UK” but also, “set in ye olden times” and also “set in space.”

Just like everyone on Game of Thrones and in The Lord of the Rings has a British sort of accent even though they’re both fantasies set in a whole other world. 

Here are my top five: 

5. Keanu Reeves in almost everything. His pseudo-British stand-in-for-French in Dangerous Liaisons came and went. His accent in Dracula was hanging on by a thread. Even his surfer-dude speak snuck in to his FBI agent lines in Point Break. But, in all honesty, at least that one sounded natural.

4. It’s been universally reviled as one of the worst attempts, but Don Cheadle’s “British” accent in Ocean’s Eleven also has the distinction of coming and going even within the space of one line of dialogue. In common with most truly craptastic fake British accents, it mostly only happens at the end of each sentence.

3. Madonna in real life. Yes, it’s tempting to mimic the accent when you’re around it. Resist.

2. Early in the film Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves,  Kevin Costner’s Robin introduces himself as “Robin of Locksley” with an attempt at an uppercrust British lilt. About an hour into the film, all pretext of Britishness is out. An (actual) British person says—“They took our land!”
Robin Hood proceeds to reply in a 100% American drawl: “Then by God we take it back.”

1. In Star Wars Episode IV, Carrie Fisher’s mysterious British accent appears only when Princess Leia is speaking to Grand Moff Tarkin (who was played by the actually British Peter Cushing) 
She starts off strong with a very Brit-sounding, "Governor Tarkin, I should have expected to find you holding Vader's leash. I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board." But by the time Han Solo shows up, Leia is barking at him in an unmistakably American way. 
At least she didn't say "guv'nor."

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Top 5 from the '13

2013, contrary to the opinions I held in childhood, did not mean hover-cars, clones, and trips to the moon. But it was still a pretty weird year for all that.

For one, though this isn’t my first time at the year’s-best-list rodeo, I’m noticing how challenging it is to list stuff from this year. I’d like to put stuff on here that I discovered this year, but a lot of it came out ages ago. I was never too great at reading books right after they come out—but thanks to streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, now my TV and movie diet is pretty asynchronous too these days (mostly thanks to number 1).

So here are my standouts from the year that was:

1.     Netflix

Once upon a time, Netflix was this little envelope service that occasionally sent me movies on disc. I say occasionally because that’s how often I got around to watching the actual movies and remembering to send them back. Today, the power of the ‘flix is hard to ignore. For example, Sea World had kept its head down, riding out the Blackfish controversy in silence—until last weekend when the documentary debuted on Netflix. Suddenly Sea World was taking out ads in major papers all across the country to share their side of the story. This was the year of Netflix. They even broke into programming with a bunch of original shows. It’s a coach potato dream come true.

2.     Gluten

At the start of 2013, I barely knew what it was. Now everywhere you look: gluten. Well, the word is everywhere...the actual substance is being subtracted from food all over the place. There are even books, like Grain Brain, claiming that wheat is making us dumber.
Crackers and pasta: maybe they’re the reason I’m so bad at math.
I’m hoping next year the big discovery is that trans-fat is actually pretty good for you, and there’s a fad to eat more snack cakes and Cool-Whip.

3.     Clones!

While there weren’t any in real life, that I’m aware of, hands-down the best new show I watched this year was Orphan Black on BBC America. Tatiana Maslany is a genius—I’ve lost count of how many roles she plays...just do yourself a favor and watch this if you haven't already. 

4.     Recycling

I don’t mean glass and plastic—I mean stories. It’s not a new phenomenon, but a look at this past fall’s network TV schedule is full of lots of cutting edge new tales—like Dracula, an oldie but goodie from 1897, the story of Ichabod Crane and the headless horseman, first published in 1820, and all the motley crew over at Once Upon a Time from lots of way-old fairy tales (along with the spin-off about Alice, who was hot off the presses in 1865.) And lots of these were movies and scads of books before they ever made it onto the TV lineup.
I guess it’s because hardly anybody’s writing books anymore. Shame about that.

5.  New deals

We are seriously getting a Veronica Mars movie next year, thanks to Kickstarter. I know of several authors who broke out this year whose work came out first as a self-published e-book. That girl from Tumblr who’s upset she’s in her twenties is getting a TV show. Everywhere you look, people are finding creative paths to success. 

Here's to an even more interesting 2014!