Author Archive

10 January

The Four Movie Posters on My Living Room Walls

In lieu of “real” art, movie posters are featured on the walls of my living room. (My ceilings aren’t high enough for James Ensor’s “Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889″; plus, wouldn’t it take like a million dollars to buy that piece from the Getty?) The posters represent films that have impacted me greatly as a viewer and/or as writer. I’ve seen them multiple times, so they’re highly recommended. To you. Yes, you.

The Band’s Visit (2007). Whenever I stumble across an absolutely pitch-perfect, flawless comedy like The Band’s Visit, it makes me want to hunt down anyone who’s every made a crappy film that’s supposed to be funny and yell, “You are an idiot for thinking you know how to make movies!” And then I want to track down all the actors in those movies and scream, “You are an insult to humanity for thinking you’re funny!”

The many awards that The Band’s Visit has won at festivals around the world (including at Cannes) don’t even come close to doing justice to this small film about an Egyptian police band that ends up stranded in the wrong town when they go to Israel to play a concert at an Arab Cultural Center. While it may seem that the film is a political one (indeed, it was banned in Egypt because the Egyptians and Israelis in the movie effortlessly commingle), The Band’s Visit is primarily about everyday people and their longing for love and connection.

If you want to be an actor, it would behoove you to study the droll and wry perfection and comic timing by every single person in this movie, from the leads right down to the last supporting character. And if you want to be a filmmaker, go out on a quest to find writer/director Eran Kolirin (who spent nine years writing the script) and beg him to teach you everything he knows not only about cinema but about life.

Aside from the laughs, The Band’s Visit is chock full of deeply moving characters, scenes, and metaphors that in and of themselves are remarkable acts of transcendence.

The trailer doesn’t quite capture the hysterically funny and sometimes sad heart of the movie, but it will have to do:

The Fall (2006). It’s not an exaggeration to say that The Fall generously offers some of the most original, arresting, and rapturous images ever committed to film. Director Tarsem’s labor of love—it took four years to make in 18 different countries, in between commercial-directing gigs—tells the epic tale of five mythical, mismatched, anachronistic heroes who travel stunning landscapes and get into fantastical scrapes in order to seek revenge upon the evil Governor Odious.

Those who dismiss the movie see it as over- and self-indulgent, obsessively embracing style over substance. But those who love it see substance dripping off every shot of this beautiful and deeply affecting film.

The adventure is framed by the smaller story of an American stuntman (terrifically played by Pushing Daisies’ Lee Pace) and a Romanian girl (the amazing Catinca Untaru) in a 1920s Los Angeles hospital and their tender friendship—he’s the one who spins her this epic yarn, and, in exchange, she sneaks him drugs he’s not supposed to have.

One broken man’s redemption through the love a child is moving and gratifying, sure, but Tarsem (working with co-writers Dan Gilroy and Nico Soultanakis) is getting at something more—an intriguing statement about the art of storytelling (for Tarsem, more specifically, it’s about the art of cinema), about the symbiotic relationship between artists and audiences, about artistic ownership, and about how imagination can be more transformative and necessary than truth.

In an age when fake memoirs are the greatest literary controversies of our time, The Fall shuns simplistic questions such as, “Is this story true?” The more apt question, the more timeless question, is, “What is truth?” The Fall is smart enough to ask that question. And it’s even smarter to suggest that coming up with an answer is a shared task—between the movie and you.

Love Songs (Les chansons d’amour) (2007). Although Love Songs is shot on location in Paris (with “extras” in the background who turn to the camera because they don’t even know they’re in the movie) and although it often displays a documentary aesthetic, the film veers far away from the kind of realism you’d expect, instead opting for an alternate French reality in which characters—entangled in straight, bisexual, and gay love affairs, without the burden of those pesky labels—wear their hearts on their sleeves by expressing exactly how they feel through matter-of-fact dialogue and a dozen or so gorgeous, heartfelt pop songs.

Director Christophe Honore and composer Alex Beaupain’s beguiling film is populated by characters who seem emotionally schizophrenic, navigating scenes that wildly shift moods at the drop of a tune. It’s like watching a bipolar musical. And the fact that it doesn’t collapse under the weight of its own naivete and its French New Wave conceits is a wonder. How can a movie mired in melancholy (after all, the entire story hinges on an unexpected tragedy in the first act) also enchant you with its charm, its sense of play, and its thirst for passion? In every way imaginable, Love Songs (which also pays fitting homage, of course, to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) defies logic—as demonstrated by its audaciously romantic final shot.

Together (2002). Directed and co-written by Chen Kaige (of Farewell My Concubine fame), Together is the unabashedly sentimental but extremely smart and constantly surprising story of a 13-year-old Chinese violin prodigy and his father, trying to make it big in bustling Beijing. It boasts vivid and loving characterizations (you even fall in love with the “villains”), beautiful visuals, layers of meaning (Kaige’s father was a victim of the Cultural Revolution), and an ending that—yes, I’m willing to admit this—made me sob.

Some complained that the movie is overly sentimental, but I think that’s such lazy criticism. The film simply lacks cynicism and possesses a deep and affecting humanity. I remember MPW Director Brighde Mullins once challenging writers to “dare to be sentimental.” It’s an important thing to take into consideration when your aim as an artist is to have some kind of effect on your audience. Remember that there’s a big difference between sentimentality and sloppy manipulation. (But also remember, however, that all art is manipulative.)

16 December

“Avalon”: A Plea for Stories

I was at my neighborhood cocktail lounge last night (everybody should have one!) when a friend of mine brought up Barry Levinson in conversation, which reminded me that one of my favorite film scores of all time is from a Barry Levinson movie.

Randy Newman’s lovely music for Avalon (1990) is heartfelt and elegiac, which also perfectly describes this deft, observant, funny, and ultimately heartbreaking study of three generations of Polish Jews in Baltimore in the early and mid-1900s. (Listen to audio samples of the score here.)

This semi-autobiographical story of immigrants (and children and grandchildren of immigrants), which won Levinson a WGA Award for Best Screenplay, will no doubt hold resonance for anyone who has or who knows someone who has adopted America as his or her new country.

Avalon is a loving portrait of the large Krichinsky clan and its pursuit of the American dream, but that dream comes at a terrible cost. For all its humor and generosity of spirit, the film wants to explore the disintegration of the family, asserts that progress has dark consequences, and blames television of all things for destroying the cohesion that had always been central to the collective identity of the Krichinskys.

Near the end of the film, a character says, “If I knew things would no longer be, I would have tried to remember better.” Avalon is a clarion call for us to remember our roots, a plea for us to make storytelling—to make oral history—an integral part of our lives once again.

(By the way, you can watch the trailer here, where you’ll get a glimpse of two terrific actors on opposite ends of the generational spectrum: Armin Mueller-Stahl and a startlingly young Elijah Wood.)

07 September

Wendy Wasserstein, Julie Salamon, and an Uncracked Spine

Because I have a pretty well-trafficked blog, people with something to promote often try to grab my attention–I get invited to movie screenings and plays; I get press releases about anime conventions and human-rights fundraisers; I get sent pairs of underwear to review. (Seriously. No. Seriously.) But because I’m almost always immersed in writing scripts or reading scripts (or compulsively watching past seasons of Hell’s Kitchen), I often turn things down.

So when a publicist offered to send me an advanced copy of Wendy and the Lost Boys, an epic (anything over 100 pages is epic to me) biography of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein, I naturally had to say no. But something in the press release caught my eye: the book was written by journalist Julie Salamon. So I gave the publicist my mailing address and agreed to review the biography.

You see, Julie Salamon wrote one of my favorite books of all time: The Devil’s Candy, a juicy behind-the-scenes expose about the making of The Bonfire of the Vanities, a famously disastrous movie based on the famously successful Tom Wolfe novel. The Devil’s Candy is chock full of insider insight into Hollywood machinations, and serves as an excellent primer for anyone who wants to be a part of the Hollywood establishment. I learned things about how mainstream movies are made that were never even touched upon in my four years in film school. (Perhaps it was one of the reasons I shifted academic paths and pursued an MFA in Playwriting instead?)

The Devil’s Candy is not so much a takedown as it is a cautionary tale and a look at how artists–actors, directors, costume designers, editors, etc.–navigate through vicious terrain simply because they love what they do.

Which brings us to today. The day I’m supposed to post a review of Wendy and the Lost Boys. It’s been a month since I’ve had the book, maybe two…and I haven’t even opened it. It’s not that I don’t want to. I mean, if The Devil’s Candy provides a wealth of knowledge about the film industry, this biography certainly provides invaluable information about theatre, a world that I know and love and would welcome knowing and loving more.

But, obviously, I can’t write a review. All I can do is tell you that I saw a small production of Wasserstein’s An American Daughter many years ago in the San Francisco Bay Area, and I’ve used excerpts from that play in my playwriting classes. I can also tell you that Wasserstein wrote the screenplay for the underrated Paul Rudd/Jennifer Aniston comedy/drama The Object of My Affection, based on the gay man/straight woman novel by Stephen McCauley. The film is an astute exploration of modern-day friendships and an excellent showcase for Rudd and Aniston’s more subtle comic acting.

As for Wendy and the Lost Boys, I hope to post a full review soon. And by soon, I mean check back next year. You see, it’s easier to put on a pair of underwear than to read a book.

[Crossposted at Bamboo Nation.]

31 May

More Cool Book Trailers

Speaking of book trailers, it’s a non-traditional promotional tool that shows no sign of slowing down. It takes real business and artistic savvy (or, at least, a confluence of dumb luck) to create a promo video that will go viral on the Internet–but people are doing it and doing it well.

Sometimes a book promo will look low-budget and self-made, thereby giving it an air of authenticity rather than the stink of corporate money (even though a publishing house may be backing it). “50 State Stereotypes (in 2 Minutes),” an amusing video that gets funnier as it goes along, is currently doing the rounds on the Internet. At half a million views on YouTube so far, it’s surely directing a lot of attention to Paul Jury’s States of Confusion: My 19,000-Mile Detour to Find Direction, a memoir about a humor writer’s cross-country trip. Watch:

[Video Link]

Jury claims on his website that the promo “has (almost) nothing to do with the book,” and I don’t believe that’s him in the video. But consumer awareness of States of Confusion has certainly increased, so I’m sure he has no real complaints.

Some book trailers go in the opposite direction, boasting production value and making everything grandly cinematic. Take, for example, the trailer for Jo Nesbø’s The Snowman, a Norwegian thriller that’s being hailed as the heir apparent to Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the Swedish international sensation. Watch:

[Video Link]

That trailer, incidentally, won the 2010 Book Video Award, a student competition run by the UK’s National Film and Television School, along with The Bookseller magazine, Random House, and Foyles. Three other videos were vying for the top prize last year, including one for James Ellroy’s Blood’s a Rover

[Video Link]

…SJ Bolton’s Blood Harvest

[Video Link]

…and Arnaldur Indridason’s Hypothermia

[Video Link]

18 March

Using Video to Promote Print

Johanna Blakley’s recent visit to the Master of Professional Writing Program is the gift that keeps on giving–at least in terms of terrific blog content. She touched on how book trailers are all the rage these days, another example of how non-print media continues to be used as a tool by the publishing industry. Blakley was particularly impressed with the trailer for Maurice Gee’s Going West. The short animated video makes use of the printed page’s materiality–literally bringing a book to life. Watch:

[Video Link]