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Vilify Me.

19 Sep

Well, maybe not me. Them. But then, they deserve it. When one is trapped in a car with other humans for longish periods of time, one may find themselves engaging in odd conversations. In this case, I am The One, and as The One, I was talking to Lauren about my own work and why one of my projects did it for me so much – namely The Devil’s Due. The short answer is . . . I love my villain in that book. I think I got it right. Lauren, to her credit, nodded and agreed and didn’t say anything derogatory about my portrayal of Azazel, so I’m going to take that as I AGREE, BEST FRIEND THING, THAT YOU ARE AWESOME IN FICTION and take a bow.

In the meanwhile, though, it got me thinking “What MAKES a good villain?” Complicated question, that. I think understanding the bad character’s motives is the most essential piece – why does Bad Person X act the way they do? Can I wrap my mind around their actions? I understand the concept of malevolence for the sake of malevolence (the Japanese love their Angry Ghost For No Reason thing, and the movie The Strangers did a hell of a job of making the “WE’RE EVIL JUST CAUSE WE CAN BE” thing terrifying) but I think writers have to be careful with that particular trope. It’s overdone and most of the time, done poorly. For a bad guy to really get under my/our skin, it’s good for people to understand the baddy’s head space. Mind you, we might not agree with their twisted (and often psychotic) world view, but nothing is scarier than a villain who does things for reasons we can ALMOST get behind.

Making a villain likable on some bizarre level makes them dimensional. Dimensional makes them more relatable and thus . . . much more terrifying. It makes us think about ourselves and what deep, dark, mangled little things squirm at our cores.

So I decided I’d put together a list of some of my favorite villains. I even explain why I like them so much and in some cases, why they were on the list as opposed to other villains of the same genre. Really? I just talk a lot and put a lot of pictures up. Act surprised!

15. Shere Khan, The Jungle Book

He Will Eat You On Toast

Right off the bat people are probably going to disagree with me, but that’s okay! I had to pick between Jeremy Irons’ portrayal of Scar in The Lion King and this, and I went with the 1967 villain instead of the more recent one. Why? Because I always felt that Scar took a page out of Shere Khan’s book – as in he wouldn’t have been nearly as effective without some help from an earlier bad-guy-talking-animal. Not to sound like a hipster douchebag, but SHERE KHAN DID IT FIRST sorta goes on repeat whenever I hear people talk about how awesome Scar is. I know, I know “the only thing in common is they both have English accents!” Not true. There’s a certain /style/ to the villainy that carries over. Watch both movies and do a compare and contrast. I’m pretty sure you’ll get my meaning. The Disney writers definitely looked back before they looked forward in this case. Both villains are fantastic, but I’m going to give the nod to Tony The Tiger On Roids.

14. Malcolm McDowell as Alex, A ClockWork Orange

I actually didn’t like A ClockWork Orange if I’m being totally honest. The movie was heavy handed with its message, and I found a lot of the violence done more for shock value than advancing story, but I can appreciate what a great villain Alex was. You could see that Alex enjoyed what he was doing, hurting others. He liked being powerful and seeing others afraid. He raped, beat, and stabbed those not willing to go along with his horrible ideas, and every terrible thing done fueled his next Bad Plan. He got off on being wicked, and you could tell that he’d go on like that forever if there weren’t consequences for his actions. He made being bad look SO FUN, and in making it look fun, it made him scary. It made me as a watcher question if I’d like lording fear over others, and if I would, what does that say about me?

13. Geoffrey Rush as Captain Barbossa, Pirates of the Caribbean

What A Jaunty Hat!

There is something so utterly likable about Geoffrey Rush. I don’t know if I can properly explain it, but let me put it this way – if I had a list of “people you could randomly have lunch with just because”, Geoffrey Rush would be on that list. He seems so damned approachable. And that’s why Barbossa is an amazing villain. You can get behind him. He’s funny and has as much flair as Cap’n Jack. He’s a very bad man, and yet you can forget it when he’s feeding his evil undead monkey or barking orders at his crew. There’s also a definitive creep factor to him too, though, and that’s what makes him so fantastic. I recently watched the first Pirates movie again, and was struck by how unsettling the scene is with Keira Knightly eating food at Barbossa’s table. He’s staring at her, longing all over his face. Maybe it’s because she’s a pretty girl, or maybe it’s because he misses the taste of that apple just that much. It’s intense and weird, and all because Geoffrey Rush is an amazing actor who did great things with a great character concept.

12. Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

We all learn to be afraid of the doctor’s office as a kid. The doctor wants to give us a shot, and the shot is going to hurt. The good news — at least for me anyway — was that most of the time the doctor or the nurse that treated me would give me a sticker or a lollipop afterwards. They were very nice and would pat me on the head and say I’d been very brave even if I’d thrown an enormous tantrum. Nurse Ratched would have jabbed me in the eye with the needle and then punched me in the face as a follow up. And she would have been so even keel about doing it, I never would have seen it coming. The thing that’s so UGLY about Nurse Ratched is how she never gets excitable, never gets above ten miles per hour when she’s doing her evil nurse thing. She’s so temperate it’s inhuman, and combining someone inhuman with the healthcare industry? Yeah, that’s the stuff of nightmares. She’s a little piece of doctor’s office hell.

11. Heath Ledger as The Joker, The Dark Knight

Smile!

The thing I find the most admirable about Heath Ledger’s performance in this movie is the HUGE MOUNTAIN he had to climb before he even got onto the screen, namely overcoming everyone’s admiration of Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the same character twenty years before. It’s a bit like walking into a kitchen as a new chef and being told that the old chef was Gordon Ramsay and GOOD LUCK WITH THAT. He had to play an iconic villain and put his own spin on it, and he did it beautifully. Instead of going for the campy mustache twirling of the 60’s Batman, or Nicholson’s malevolent-yet-lovable gangster clown gone wrong, Ledger made The Joker FUCKING PSYCHOTIC. He was scary. The scene where he’s threatening to cut a smile into a woman’s face at the party? Terrifying. I squirmed in my seat. He twitched and licked his lips, his eyes darted all over. He was nervous and jumpy, a makeup smeared poster child for “This is what doing too much Ritalin can and will do to you”. Fantastic villain.

10. Kevin Kline as Otto, A Fish Called Wanda

When you think of comedies, you think of the funnies associated with the plot line, not necessary the plot. You also don’t tend to think too much about the villain giving the good guys all the trouble. Then there’s Kevin Kline. A Fish Called Wanda is a hysterical movie — one of my favorites — with a stellar ensemble cast, and yet if you ask everyone who they loved the most after the movie, it’s not those Monty Python guys they talk about. It’s Kevin Kline as the assassin. He won an Oscar for his portrayal of Wanda’s other lover and it was well-deserved. Not only was he funny, he was also believably dangerous. It’s not too often that you’ll slap a comedic bad guy alongside the likes of Nurse Ratched, but I have no compunction about doing so with this particular pick.

9. Daniel-Day Lewis as Bill The Butcher, Gangs of New York

Daniel Day-Lewis is one of those actors everyone hates working with. He pretty much becomes whoever or whatever he is playing, to the point he probably ran around the set of Gangs wielding sharp objects and threatening to shank the other actors. In this case (and admittedly in most cases – the guy’s amazing) it worked beautifully. Bill the Butcher is a racist asshole who runs the town, who’s more than willing to cut anyone and anything down to maintain his control. Those who are stupid enough to cross him die horrible, painful deaths. And yet. And yet those he cares for he’s overly kind to, like he’s trying to make up for his atrocities by loving his inner circle THAT much. The thing about Gangs that’s so brilliant, though, is right as you’re about to get behind Bill the Butcher and say “ahh hell, he’s not so bad” Bill does something so savage and bloody, you recoil and wonder what the fuck you were thinking. But for a few minutes? You start to believe he’s a great guy, and that’s what makes him so frightening.

8. Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance, The Shining

HEEEERE'S A CLICHE!

If you’ve ever read Stephen King’s book, Jack Torrance is something of a tragic character. He’s a flawed bum just like you or me who made some bad decisions, but he wants to make it right. He wants to turn a corner on the bad and get back on the straight and narrow, and he takes this job at The Overlook to do just that. How could he know it was a haunted hotel? The beauty of King’s text is that Jack’s decline is so slow, it’s painful to watch. He’s besieged by his surroundings and it breaks down all of those good intentions. The remarkable thing about Jack Nicholson’s performance, then, is that he managed to hint at this while staying brutally intense throughout. You can see him teetering on that dark precipice from the beginning. Without having a really good reason to say so, you just know from five minutes in things are going to go badly for this guy, and it makes you uneasy from the onset.

7. Kevin Spacey as . . . Oh Fuck. Just Pick Something.

Except Lex Luthor because that movie sucked. Anyway, Kevin Spacey is amazing. We all know this. The problem, then, is which villain do I put on the list? Do I put the serial killer from Se7en? I certainly want to. That movie made me feel dirty watching it. I one hundred percent bought into Spacey’s portrayal as John Doe, the religious zealot trying to point out human flaws with crimes embodying the seven deadly sins. When Spacey’s sitting in the back seat of the car talking about wrath and the wrath crime has yet to be discovered by the unsuspecting cops, there’s almost too much tension. You know whatever it is, it’s going to be awful just like the last few crimes. Conversely, do I put The Usual Suspects on this list? Cause he deserves kudos for that, too. Or, wait, he was in . . . fuck it. Kevin Spacey rocks.

6. Christoph Waltz as Col. Hans Landa, Inglorious Basterds

Trying to pick a Tarantino villain for the list was hard. There’s Bill from Kill Bill, and Mr. Blonde from Reservoir Dogs. There’s bad guys galore in Pulp Fiction and Stuntman Mike from Deathproof. In the end, though, I went for Hans Landa. First off, he’s a Nazi, so the likelihood of us relating to this character is slim to none. The thing about Waltz’a portrayal of Landa, though, is that he’s so bon vivant about it, like waking up and reporting in to the SS is a delightful task and la-tee-da. He’s such a casual character, his evil so off the cuff it’s bizarre to watch. Where other villains brood and psycho their way into storylines, Hans Landa waltzes, smokes a cigar, and smiles. It’s the most blase portrayal of a homicidal douchebag I’ve ever seen, and that’s what I think works about it.

5. Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes, Misery

COCKADOODY.

She doesn’t really swear, she smiles too much, and her home is warm and inviting. Sort of. She’s a huge fan of your work and she’s more than willing to nurse you back to health while you recover from a terrible car accident. She’ll fluff your pillows and cook you soup. She’s also a fucking psycho who’s going to hobble your ass when you try to leave her house. Kathy Bates takes a terrifying character from literature and breathes life into her. It’s Pygmalion from Hell. I remember seeing the movie for the first time, laying eyes on Kathy Bates, and going YES. YES, THAT. Because she nailed it. She took Stephen King’s horrible creation and made it her own. She became Annie Wilkes and turned her into an iconic figure of feminine terror. Your Old Aunt Gerdy has gone around the bend, and she’s going to beat you to death with her collection of Boston Terrier Statuettes, and you won’t know if you should scream or thank her for the money she sent in your Christmas card last year.

4. Maleficent, Sleeping Beauty

“But Hillary, where’s the Evil Queen from Snow White?” Okay look, it was a toss up. They are cut from the same cloth. They’re two evil bitches who want to kill a young innocent girl for selfish, horrible reasons. Let me tell you why I picked Maleficent over The Wicked Queen. One, she turns into a dragon. Two, SHE TURNS INTO A DRAGON. Three, SHE TURNS INTO A FUCKING DRAGON, GUYS. A more serious answer? The voice acting on Maleficent is spectacular, plus she’s the first Disney character to curse (she actually says the word Hell, and that was a big deal back in the day.) She’s similar to The Wicked Queen, but I feel like this is a perfected version. Where Shere Khan and Scar were a situation of “derivative do-over”, I feel like this is an instance where they looked back and actually improved upon an earlier version, and that’s saying something. The Wicked Queen was pretty bad ass. Oh, did I mention MALEFICENT TURNS INTO A DRAGON?

3. Margaret Hamilton as The Wicked Witch Of The West, The Wizard of Oz

I'LL GET YOU, MY PRETTY. AND YOUR LITTLE DOUCHEBAG, TOO.

You knew she was coming. And what can I say about her really? As a wee tot, I’d sit for the annual television showing of The Wizard of Oz despite knowing I was going to shit Twinkies the moment the Wicked Witch came on screen. Her cackle, her evil trees, her bony fuckin’ hands . . . she scared the crap out of me. Now that I’m older, I’m not afraid anymore, but I can’t help being impressed by a woman who hires dung-flinging aerial simians to do her dirty work. That’s clever, way before its time. And, if we’re being really fair here, The Wicked Witch had a pretty good reason to get her bitch on with Dorothy – Dorothy stole her dead sister’s shoes. If I had a sister and someone took her cool stuff without asking me first? I’d be pretty furious, too.

2. Darth Vader (Vit Your Little Boots And Cape), Star Wars

If you clicked that link, I bet you want to smack me right now. Sorry! Anyway, Darth Vader’s iconic despite being a pasty-faced robo-man. The interesting part about him? The actor doesn’t do a whole lot beneath the mask. It’s all about the James Earl voice acting. It’s stellar. It’s exactly what you need it to be – dark, brooding, evil, and yet refined too. I’m not a Star Wars fan in general — PLEASE DON’T HIT ME HAMMARYN — but I can understand why it’s got the followers it has, and I can also understand why Vader set the bar for villains in the Sci Fi/Fantasy film genre. (Sidenote: I almost put a picture of Rick Moranis up from Spaceballs, but I figured someone would sic a rabid raccoon on me, so . . . idea banished. For now.)

1. Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, The Silence Of The Lambs

Someone told me a story once, I think it may have been my mother, that when this movie went into the cinemas, Anthony Hopkins decided to go watch the audience to see their reaction to it first hand. I don’t recall a lot of hoopla about the launch of Silence, it was more a darling after it won every Oscar ever, so it didn’t get massive attention and massive release. Anyway, Hopkins goes into the movie theater, sits in the back, and watches people watching his movie. When it was over, people were gushing. Sir Hopkins tapped one gentleman on the shoulder, asked him how he liked it, and the man shrieked and /ran away/. I’d have done the same damned thing. Lecter has a casual approach to his badness (a bit of what I talked about with Hans Landa). He’s a refined gentleman who just so happens to FUCKING MURDER PEOPLE AND EAT THEM. He’s smarter than you on every possible level, so he’s the ultimate predator, which I think is what makes him so bloody terrifying. He was also given some of the best lines in a movie ever. “So I hate his liver with some fava beans . . . ” You can finish it, can’t you? I know I can. It’s going to take a lot to convince me that Lecter isn’t the best of the bad when it comes to movie villains.

*****

So, have at the list. What did you like, not like? What would you change or add? I’d be interested to see which villains stuck with you and why! AUDIENCE PARTICIPATION TIME!

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Accidental Nightmare Fuel

21 Jul

Today I’m going to talk about movies that traumatized me as a child. And I don’t mean horror movies either. My folks were pretty strict about what we were allowed to watch, so this isn’t going to be about a little kid that watches The Thing.  But thanks for the inspiration, Caulle!

No, this is a post about movies that were intended to be funny/appropriate for childhood viewing but wound up becoming accidental nightmare fuel for me (warning: that is a TV Tropes link. I cannot be responsible for your lost productivity if you fall into the TV Tropes wormhole.)

1. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

An 80s classic, everyone I grew up with saw this movie. I couldn’t wait to see it. It was supposed to be cute and funny and inspiring.

It scared the crap out of me. I have since discovered that people seem to either love this movie or despise it. I remain in the ‘despise’ camp though I will admit some of the scenes are cute or funny or touching.

So what was so scary? How about mysterious grown-ups with authority marching in wearing big puffy de-humanizing suits and throwing Elliot and E.T. into a quarantine tent? I was taught to respect people with authority. So here was this kid, who did nothing wrong, and suddenly a swarm of government dudes appear at his house and basically kidnap him and his alien friend and throw them into a scary hospital tent.

Ho-leeeee shit.

And then? Whatever they do in there KILLS the alien. He DIES. Meanwhile the kid and the alien are hooked up to tubes and wires and medical equipment, there are a bunch of doctors standing around in faceshields doing CPR. Poor E.T. goes all white and chalky and looks even creepier. This is a children’s movie? Are you kidding me?

I can’t find the “lots of scary dudes are kidnapping us” scene on YouTube, but here’s the one where E.T. is dying and Elliot is losing his ever-loving mind:

2. Young Frankenstein

This one was an accident. I wasn’t supposed to be watching Young Frankenstein as a tiny tot. My parents put us to bed, turned out all the lights in the house, and put on a movie they enjoyed. I was around four or five years old. Occasionally I would wake up in the middle of the night and seek out my parents. I was a very quiet child, I frequently startled my parents by seemingly appearing from the ether and just hovering nearby, waiting for them to notice me. I didn’t want to bother them, you see. So sometimes I’d wake up and creep downstairs, but if they were watching tv I didn’t want to interrupt them so I’d just sit on the little staircase that led down to the living room and hope one of them would get up and find me on the way to the kitchen.  I could see the tv from the steps too, so I’d watch in silence.

And so I have a very vivid memory of sitting on those steps in the dark, watching the flickering tv. I didn’t know what they were watching. It was in black and white. And then, this happened:

Igor didn’t scare me. The lightning didn’t scare me. It was the smashed brain. I was so freaked out that I got up and went right back to bed and lay there, terrified, in the dark. Years and years later my folks decided we were old enough to watch Young Frankenstein and I had an “Aha!” moment.

“Why didn’t you tell us? Why didn’t you come down the steps?” my mom asked, horrified. I still don’t know the answer to that question.

3. The Princess Bride

This one is all the fault of the Ray boys down the street. In my family there were three girls, in that family were three boys of almost the exact same ages. We’d go down the block and play together often. Occasionally we’d go there after school if my mom had an appointment. Which is how I wound up watching The Princess Bride before I was quite ready. I think I was seven or eight?

Danny insisted it was a funny movie. I wasn’t convinced. I tried to ignore it and read or do my homework or something, but their tv was the focal point of the room.

There were two parts of the movie that terrified me and actually gave me nightmares. Although I enjoy the movie for its many merits as an adult, I still think both of these scenes are creepy.

Fire Swamp! Let’s see, we’ve got giant gouts of flame that burst out of the ground randomly. We’ve got huge, creepy Rodents of Unusual Size (I don’t believe they exist). And then, the cherry on top? Quicksand. Which very nearly kills our dynamic duo, as evidenced by them desperately gasping for breath when Wesley pulls them out. TOTALLY FUN MOVIE FOR KIDS, AMIRITE?

You saw this one coming, right? Jesus H. Christ on a pogo stick. A machine that sucks the life out of you, that attaches to your head and your nipples (?!) A machine that is so painful it makes a strong pirate-man writhe and arch off the table and then weep like a baby. And that’s on the lowest setting. I had actual nightmares about this thing for years. Between this and the E.T. hospital scene I had a weird fascination with medical equipment and death and being injured.

I watched The Princess Bride last week and the machine still gives me the heebie-jeebies.

So those are my inadvertently traumatizing movie clips from childhood. What are yours? What seemingly innocuous show or movie became nightmare fuel for you?

This Month on Netflix

13 Jul

If I’m going to watch an embarrassing amount of Netflix, I may as well share the good stuff, right? Without further ado, here are my picks for July:

Movies

  • Kick-Ass

I am SO glad that my son didn’t watch this show with us. The first act was jam-packed with lessons in what kids should not do if they want to live to adulthood. The geeky star of the show made a pretty hilarious accidental superhero, but by the end the REAL hero kicked my teeth in with her awesomeness. Violent but sorta lighthearted, like Batman on Prozac. 5 stars.

  • Exit Through the Gift Shop

A surprising documentary on street art. Thierry Guetta, amateur filmmaker, is the embodiment of obsession; Banksy, the infamous street artist who encourages him, comes to regret doing so. The whole thing almost feels like a setup to one heavy joke. I laughed, so it must have worked.  4 stars.

TV

  • Bones

Do you enjoy watching socially handicapped people interact with the real world (and each other)? Do you secretly wish that you, too, could be a brilliant anthropologist/bestselling author? Do you like a little conspiracy theory with your murder, a little art with your science, and a little romance with your mystery? I wasn’t sure about this series at first. There were some dialogue cliches that made me pause and say “…really?” A few corny exchanges in the beginning wasn’t quite enough to turn me off to the show, so I tried a few more episodes and soon became hooked on the characters. Maybe I’m weird, but I like seeing the many various geek types interact with jocks and normals. 4 stars.

  • Rescue Me

(Caveat: I’m only about two seasons into this show, but I can say it’s worth watching up to that point.)

One phrase from the show sums it up: “There is no rock bottom for you, is there?” Characters who are simultaneously likable and extremely unlikable careen toward the lowest common denominator as fast as they can dig down to a new one, relentlessly crashing into each other in their tumble to the absolute bottom. Do not watch if you are offended by vulgar language or uncomfortable with sex scenes, depression, substance abuse or controversial topics; if racial epithets make you queasy, sexism makes you froth at the mouth, or seeing dead people makes you cringe, this is not the show for you. That said, it’s a very darkly entertaining series, if trainwrecks are your thing. 4 stars.

  • Veronica Mars

We found this one on instant streaming and literally overnight, it was removed and put on the DVD-only queue. I felt both sad and horribly cheated, because damn, that was a fantastic show. We watched five or six hour-long episodes in a row that night, if that’s any indication of how much we liked it. Veronica Mars is an incredibly resourceful and clever girl. Witty and willful, she maintains a strong front in spite of some really torturous personal disasters. She’s my hero, and I’m buying the DVDs as soon as I get the chance. 5 stars.

  • Dexter

Dexter makes me uneasy. Dexter’s relationship with his girlfriend makes me uneasy. The whole SHOW makes me uneasy. It’s creepy, gory and violent, and strangely enough, I found myself kind of understanding–if not precisely rooting for–a psychopath. Empathy for a sociopath? What a bizarre feeling. I can safely say it made me think. It got a little weird by the end of the second season and I haven’t seen the rest (it’s not on instant streaming yet), but it was definitely worth watching at least the first season. 4 stars (5 stars for Season 1).

  • Kitchen Nightmares

Gordon Ramsay whips bad kitchens into shape in his usual verbally-abusive manner. Colorful language and lots of “what the hell were they thinking,” conflicts between chefs and desperate attempts to woo customers. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. Your results may vary, but if you like Ramsay, it’s a pretty safe bet. 3.5-4.5 stars, depending on episode

Family shows

  • Phineas & Ferb

There’s a very strict formula for each episode of Phineas and Ferb, but the stories are always uniquely imaginative and fun. The plot is predictable, but the details aren’t. Tons of great original songs in every musical style you can think of. The writers really do a great job and the singers are awesome. Good show to watch with your kids! 4 stars.

  • Peter and the Wolf (2006)

This quirky, spooky animated adventure is only 32 minutes long and set to the classic title score. There isn’t a single line of dialogue, but the characters are very expressive. My kid was glued to the screen and I loved it, too. 4 stars.

Didn’t make the cut:

  • Hoarders. I watched one episode out of curiosity, as a look into the lives of people with serious behavioral issues. It was sad and frustrating to watch, and after a while I just felt like a voyeur watching something that really should remain private between patient and health-care provider. 3 stars.
  • Kyle XY. I found out later it was a family channel series, which explained the simplicity of plot and made the mature content seem even more awkward. Now, I have no objections to mature content in YA material. Young adults have to deal with sex, drinking, drugs, and other difficult subjects in their lives and I think it’s good for them to see how others cope. But presented in an oversimplified, awkward and often cliched format, it just felt wrong. I didn’t really like a single character. Inconsistency, one-dimensional characterizations and bad acting made me stop caring what happened after the first couple of episodes. 2 stars, barely.
  • Parking Wars. Why is this a show? Watch parking enforcement patrol the streets and get verbally abused by the people they ticket! Woo. Oh look, there’s a boot on your car! It combines all the fun of a parking ticket with all the excitement of waiting in line at the DMV. 2 stars.

Strictly Awesome

28 Jun

(Warning! This review contains spoilers. Granted, it’s a movie that came out almost 20 years ago, but I wouldn’t want to ruin it for you.)

You know I already have the hots for Netflix, but I love it even more when I find unexpected gems in the Recommendations list: Movies that make me laugh until I pee, movies that make me think, and especially movies that keep me watching until the credits roll. I have the attention span of a gnat, so that’s a lot harder than it sounds. Last week a 1992 Australian film called Strictly Ballroom made my list of all-time favorites. (Baz Luhrmann went on to direct Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge, you may’ve heard of them. Hee.) I know this review is two decades late, but bear with me. I was only twelve when it came out.

Strictly Ballroom opens with a classical track and the silhouettes of men in tails dancing with women in swirling finery. Graceful bodies dip and twirl through the shadows; the men link arms with their partners and walk toward the camera. When they burst into the light it’s HOLY SHIT EVERYTHING’S SO GODDAM YELLOW LOOK AT ALL THIS AQUANET I DON’T EVEN. It’s fashion hell, and when the glitzy cabaret moves onto the floor, a glorious eye-twitching reminder of the hot pink neon marabou rhinestone hairspray blitz that was the early nineties, it’s an orgy of sequins, bleached hair and orange tans. This is what Barbie would see if she dropped rainbow unicorn teardrop glitter acid.

It rocks.

There’s a documentary feel to the first scene of the movie which highlights the stark differences of opinion about the horror unfolding before us. Judges gasp, dancers falter and mothers weep as Scott Hastings, the most promising dancer in the ballroom dancing competition, resorts to–dare I say it–flashy crowd-pleasing steps to get out of a tight spot. The crowd fucking loves it, and why shouldn’t they? Sure, the judges aren’t going to like it, but their rogue dancer is GOING for it, dancing for the sake of dancing, loving every minute of this sparkly trainwreck, and it shows.

The scene ends with Scott’s sobbing mum (“Did I fail him as a mother?”) and the Australian Dancing Federation President condemning the fracas out of hand (“You can dance any steps you like. That doesn’t mean you’ll… –cue ominous music here–…win”).

The conflict’s no head-scratcher. There’s a clear villain, a hero, an ugly duckling that becomes a swan, and a love story. They even throw in a little redemption at the last minute, to remind you that even though people do lose their way, they can also surprise you by doing what’s right.

I love the film’s stubborn refusal to take itself seriously. Light and fun, the story shone a light on the fears and inhibitions that keep people from enjoying the things they love,  circling round and round the message at its heart: A life lived in fear is a life half-lived. Winning isn’t everything. The joy is in the dance, in the things we love to do and the things we do for love.

If you have Netflix, put this one in your queue.

Plot Devices: Foreshadowing and Red Herrings

29 May

There’s this book I’m reading. It’s making me grit my teeth.  A lot.

I’m not going to name and shame, not just yet.  I’m a quarter of the way through and still determined to chug along to the end, but more because I like the frame story than because I like the meat of the book.   Add to that the odd compulsion I have that, once I start a book I need to finish it, and I’m doomed to stick this one out for another 600 or so pages.  (I’ve gotten better about the compulsion, by the way.  Some things I can put down.  Others I’ll skim.  But doing either of those is damned hard for me.)

Anyway, this book.  Remember when we talked about Chekhov’s Gun?  I mentioned my penchant for catching the not-really-throwaway lines and the camera angles that linger a fraction of a section too long on something seemingly insignificant.  The author is doing that on just about every page.  Some are intended to misdirect, others are real clues.

The problem is, it’s overkill, and it’s an insult to both the character’s and the reader’s intelligence — especially when we’re then following the protagonist around as he chases every last wild goose in the gaggle.

Writers, don’t do this.  Some misdirection is fine — great, even — when it adds to the tension and lets you develop character or drop more clues toward the actual plot.  But beware of meandering.  If the characters are following false lead after false lead and the plot doesn’t progress, your readers will get bored.

Ask yourself what’s so important about the dead ends?

  • How does being wrong about a hunch or misinterpreting a clue impact the story?  Maybe while your character was following a false lead, the villain took the opportunity to strike again.  Or maybe the character’s insistence on sticking to a cold trail shows that he can be stubborn to a fault, or that he’s feeling increasingly desperate to solve the case.
  • What are the consequences of jumping to the wrong conclusion?  Did your hero just accuse his best friend of betraying him?  How does the friend react?  Does it tip the hero’s hand and let the villain get away?

If the answer to those is instead a resounding silence, chances are they can be cut or quickly dismissed by the characters.  Right now, in this book I’m reading (oh, this book.  GRRRR, this book) we’re running down a checklist of all the things a mysterious ailment isn’t, and all the people who aren’t causing it, when, oh, a hundred pages ago, the ailment was not only heavily foreshadowed, but the only person who isn’t a suspect has been acting increasingly guilty and weird.

What I’m trying to say is this:  trust your readers.  Start by trusting your characters.  If you’ve declared that Joe Detective is the Best Private Eye Ever, ask yourself if he’d fall for all the tricks you’re throwing at him.  Don’t bestow exceptional intelligence or uncanny powers of intuition upon your characters unless you’re going to let them use those assets.

Why did Randy live through Scream when his classmates were dying left and right?  Because he never forgot The Rules:

And neither did the scriptwriters.

Netflix FOREVER!

10 May
I may have mentioned at some point or other that I’m a serious procrastinator–let’s just say I’m embarrassed to show my face at the local library and I’m pretty much required to set up all my bills to pay automatically. In my lifetime I’ve had to pay out hundreds, if not thousands of dollars in various late fees. The idea of movie rentals that wouldn’t require me to go to the store was good; not having to return them by a certain date and time was even better.

When we signed up for Netflix way back in the early aughts, our subscription cost a whopping $19.99 per month and we were allowed to have all of three movies out at any given time. It was still cheaper than renting movies locally so long as we remembered to return the discs promptly, to keep the queue moving. It was worth it for a while. We got to try shows we wouldn’t normally have access to at the local Blockbuster (like TV series and anime), plus there was a lot of kid-friendly content to keep our then-toddler entertained.

After a while our use tapered off. We lost a disc. One thing (procrastination) led to another (more procrastination) and I came to realize we were still paying for a service we hadn’t used in several months. I called to cancel and customer service offered me a year’s subscription for free if I would reconsider. Let me tell you, I took pause at that. It’s really flippin’ hard to say no to free stuff, not to mention an entire year of free stuff, but I was deep into MMOs by then and making more time for TV was out of the question. I knew if I took the offer I’d just be on the phone again 18 months later, so I politely declined, dug my fingernails out of my desktop, and forgot about Netflix for over half a decade.

Last October, we solved my husband’s daytime TV problem (“it’s all crap”) by putting Netflix on our Wii. Ho-lee-crap. Instant streaming is infinitely better than renting out three discs at a time and it costs half as much as our old sub back in the day. If I decide I don’t like a show I can just start up a new one without setting myself back a day or two of queue time; if I want to watch Dead Like Me on the computer while my husband watches Better Off Ted in the living room, I can. It rocks.

I’m embarrassed to admit just how many shows we’ve watched since last fall, but everybody loves a good confession so I’ll tell you anyway: nearly 1600 movies, TV shows and specials have graced our television screen and computer monitors in the last 8 months. Bill likes to watch an entire TV series in one go: MacGyver, The Rockford Files, My Name is Earl. He loves comedy specials and Carl Sagan, and will queue up an old Cosmos special whenever he has trouble falling asleep (“If the soothing voice of Carl Sagan can’t cure your insomnia, nothing can”).

We don’t always see eye to eye on what qualifies as entertainment. Example: I whinge, flounce out of the room, or deliver blow-by-blow mocking critiques of the show whenever he vegetates in front of daytime reruns of Charmed. He pokes fun at my House addiction and teases me when certain of my favorite characters appear in our guilty-pleasure animes. In spite of that we still find a lot to watch together, sometimes by surprise. Last week I tried a British comedy about relationships called Coupling and he loved it, which surprised me. We watched every episode together over a few evenings (he suggested that it was somewhat ironic for me to rank the six main characters by how neurotic they were, but that’s his opinion). Now we’re in the middle of Death Note, which is pretty dark, clever and thought-provoking. I like it so far in spite of some minor issues that nag at me (that would never happen, why is the main character such a douchebag, WHERE DID ALL THAT MONEY COME FROM) but they fall well below the threshold of intolerance.

Now that there’s no risk involved in trying an unknown, I’ve tackled a long and heavy list of recommendations from friends and followers on Twitter (you can add to my list too. If there’s something I absolutely must see, just tweet me @beckymew and I’ll add it).

Here are some of my favorites so far:

Seven Samurai– There was nothing NOT to like about this classic film. The heroes and their sacrifices moved me, as did the plight of the downtrodden. I’ve never seen a movie that did such an excellent job of showing what it means to be hopeless, and the cost of triumph.

The Boondock Saints – Give me action, clever twists and a crisis of ethics. I want to root for the good guys and for the bad guys. This one was everything I wanted in spades. Also bloody.

Fargo – I was delighted to find I’m not the only wife with a husband who will stumble out of bed determined to make her some eggs. Great story, great characters, worth watching for the accents alone.

Dead Like Me – I love me some dark humor and existential themes. The main character isn’t always very likeable, but it’s interesting to watch her grow as a person over the course of the show. Plus, MANDY PATINKIN. Come on!

Ink – More thought-provoking introspection and heartstring-tugging here (you’d think I have a secret lust for films that make my brain hurt/make me cry), but this one comes in a fantasy flavor that doesn’t ruin things by overexplaining. Sometimes it’s better just to show the bare minimum and let the audience fill in the gaps.

What IS Bad Assery?

5 Feb

If you asked everyone what scene in a movie embodies “Cool” and “Bad Ass”, I bet they’d all have a different answer. I know David and I have had a few conversations about this, and he says one of his friends claims this scene from Kill Bill is THE COOLEST THING IN THE UNIVERSE:

The thing I love about this particular example is O-Ren Ishii doesn’t even do anything except walk into a building, and yet you know from the music, the way the other characters follow her, the way the establishment owners pander to her, and her own completely flat expression that this woman commands a lot of respect. The weapon on her back is just a tease at that point, a promise of future awesome you can’t help but look forward to.

Another obvious example would be Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name:

There are three common elements apparent in both of these examples:

– Violence or the Promise of Violence
– Characters Oozing Confidence
– A Killer Soundtrack

So are these elements required for badassery? Hrmm.

It seems like a surefire bet, doesn’t it? Mix bravado with a little bit of style, add in a dash of sneering know-better wit and some intense chords, and voila, the movie bad ass is born. I could (if I wanted to) go on a complete and utter link fest of examples that would prove the formula right. The problem is the out-of-left field examples of badassery. Don’t know what I mean?

And even this!

Okay so now we have a new set of examples:

– Wizened old man giving sage advice
– Amazing soundtrack
– An incredible speaking voice

These two things really couldn’t be more disparate, could they? The soundtrack thing is there, of course, but music can make or break any mood in film. Shawshank definitely didn’t have any guns blazing in it, though, and Lord of the Rings was . . . well. It was Lord of the Rings. I suppose you could argue Gandalf’s defining moments would be on the bridge with the balrog or maybe his reveal as the new white wizard in Towers, but this scene was far more effective to me. The delivery of his message gave me tingles.

So I suppose the question is, if you had to pinpoint something in a movie that is the epitome of cool, what would you pick and more importantly, why? What elements make it so effective?