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Posted in Film, Writing

How to Put Your Own Spin on Road Trip Stories

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Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

Review — Nebraska (2013)

Alexander Payne is one of my favorite directors. I have loved all five of his previous features (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendents), and Nebraska is yet another gem to add to his filmography. He has a gift for getting incredible performances from his actors, whether they’re well known stars like Jack Nicholson and George Clooney, or character actors who you might never have seen before. He is known for finding non-actors to populate the bit parts in his movies, to give the settings more realism, and I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the smaller roles in this were filled with locals, too. He does a great job in each of his films blending comedy and drama; typically there’s at least one scene of riotous comedy, as well as a significant dramatic moment toward the end that takes your breath away. Nebraska has both of these scenes, and lots more.

Shot in stunning black-and-white, Nebraska tells the story of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), a 70-something alcoholic who receives a letter in the mail claiming he is the recipient to a million-dollar prize. Thinking it’s the truth, he starts to make the long trek between Michigan and Nebraska by foot, until his son David (Will Forte) elects to drive him. David and his mother Kate (June Squibb) know the letter is bogus, but David doesn’t care; he looks at this trip as one of the last he will ever have with his aging father. They stop in their old hometown a couple hundred miles before Lincoln, and of course get bombarded by everyone when they mistakenly think that Woody has won the prize money. In the process, David discovers more about his father than he ever could have imagined.

The film received six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director, but arguably its most deserving nomination of all didn’t happen. Yes, Bruce Dern is magnificent in the lead, giving his character a signature walk, a jaded dip of the head, a couple of blinks in almost every shot that tell the audience he’s only partway present. Yes, June Squibb is a hoot as his wife, offering the most laugh-out-loud lines of dialogue in the movie, especially in a perfectly executed scene when she tells off members of her extended family. But there is one actor who holds the movie together, who gives it the heart and soul, and that’s Will Forte. Naturally, that’s a sentence I never expected to ever write.

Payne likes to gives all sorts of actors chances (Thomas Haden Church and Virginia Madsen, for example, were pretty low on the D-list before he gave them career-best roles in Sideways), and it was a bit of inspired genius to give Forte, known for his wild comedy on SNL and in films like MacGruber, a totally ordinary dramatic role, one that essentially carries the whole movie. He is a revelation here, totally convincing as a 30-something man whose life has grown stale in work and relationships and who sees this bogus letter as a way to spend time with his dad.

All of the performances are stellar. Stacy Keach and Bob Odenkirk are also solid here. Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray (Buzz from Home Alone!) are scene-stealers as a pair of lazy brothers. Finally, an actress named Angela McEwan, who plays an old flame of Woody’s, has one superb scene about halfway through the movie, reminiscing about the man she wanted to marry, which is followed in the end by a brief moment that was moving enough to bring tears to my eyes. With an emotional stare, and no words, McEwan says so very much. Amazing.

It should be noted how thrilling it was to see a modern film up on the screen shot in gorgeous widescreen black and white. How many B&W movies do we get a year? One, maybe two, if we’re lucky. The Coen Brothers got to shoot one in 2001 with The Man Who Wasn’t There, and Steven Spielberg famously chose it for Schindler’s List. There is a haunting quality to black and white that color can never give, and I loved its use of it here. The same way Woody Allen used B&W to give a dream-like quality to the city he loves in Manhattan, Payne uses it to show the vast and empty landscapes of the mid-west. Black and white ultimately makes a movie feel timeless, and it is a tool that enhances the dramatic power of this movie. I hope this film’s success will inspire more directors to use black-and-white to tell their stories.

Watching Like a Writer

The road trip story. It’s been done a gazillion times, in film and in novels. It’s an easy way to tell a Quest narrative, characters going after something, where they begin in one place, literally and figuratively, and end in another place, literally and figuratively. Probably my favorite road trip movie is Planes, Trains & Automobiles, a comedy of friendship that has one of the most tender endings ever. Nebraska is another brilliant film that uses the road trip narrative, blending comedy and drama in a father-son story that ultimately isn’t so much about the destination but more about the characters themselves. I’m in the middle of revising a road trip story right now actually, a horror-thriller that is a whole lot more Mad Max: Fury Road than it is Nebraska, but no matter what genre you’re working in, a road trip for your characters can allow for great conflict and consistent raising of the stakes.

Exercise!

Pitch a one-sentence logline about a potential novel you could write about characters taking a road trip. What would be the genre? How would you put your own spin on the story?

Posted in Film

The Sandra Bullock Files #45: Gravity (2013)

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The Sandra Bullock Files is a series that looks at the films of Oscar-winning actress Sandra Bullock, all the way from her debut in 1987, to her two major 2018 releases, Ocean’s Eight and Bird Box.

Ever since she broke through in 1994 with her charismatic performance in the action extravaganza Speed, Sandra Bullock has been working steadily in films, both good and bad. From 1995 to 2008 she had a string of hits — While You Were Sleeping, A Time to Kill, Miss Congeniality — as well as a boatload of bombs — Two if By Sea, Forces of Nature, Gun Shy. She has been a beloved actress among film fans for two decades, but after the critical and financial failure of her suspense thriller Premonition in 2007, it seemed like she would never break through her seemingly long-lasting trend of making mediocre films. But two films in 2009 changed everything. While she did appear that year in All About Steve, arguably her worst film ever, she also starred in The Proposal and The Blind Side, two smash hits that re-instated her A-list status and garnered her not just monetary success but critical cred and major awards, including the Golden Globe Award, Screen Actors Guild Award, and Academy Award for The Blind Side.

After Sandra enjoyed such a spectacular year, one might assume there was nowhere left for her to go but down. The next three years offered little output from her, with only a brief turn in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and the occasional film premiere appearance. However, 2013 marked something impressive for Sandra: her most astonishing year yet, both financially and critically. Think her PG-13-rated romantic comedy The Proposal earning $163 million nationwide was a fluke? Consider her 2013 summer comedy The Heat, co-starring Melissa McCarthy, which earned $159 million — with an R rating, which precludes most teenagers and kids from buying tickets. Think The Blind Side making $255 million nationwide was impossible for Sandra to ever beat? That film made headlines in early 2010 for making the most money in history with only a sole female name above the poster.

Still, remarkably, her other 2013 film Gravity beat her all-time record. Opening with an astonishing $55 million, the largest sum a film has ever made on a weekend in October (until Venom and Halloween in 2018), Gravity went on in the next two months to become one of the biggest smash hits of the year, topping out at $273 million nationwide and a whopping 712 million worldwide. Many expect a summer action movie like The Avengers and Iron Man 3 to break box office records, but few assumed Gravity, with its fall release date and quieter marketing campaign, would reach such similar heights in its popularity. The film is, after all, a drama more than it is a thriller, one that features only one person on screen for the majority of its running time. Gravity is a deeply intimate, emotionally rewarding film experience, and the rare instance of a great motion picture that has managed to appeal to everyone — film buffs, casual moviegoers, grandparents, kids. It has visionary special effects, a fun supporting turn by George Clooney, and a moving story that creeps up on the viewer as the film reaches its stunning climax. Best of all, it features a stunning performance by Sandra that bests anything she has ever done on screen, including Crash, Infamous, and The Blind Side.

Gravity was in the works for more than five years. Alfonso Cuaron, one of the most acclaimed filmmakers of his generation, wanted to make a movie set in space. The director of such terrific and diverse films as A Little Princess, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Y Tu Mama Tambien wanted to step outside his comfort zone and do something different. While his 2006 film Children of Men was not a major moneymaker, its overwhelming critical praise and handful of Academy Award nominations gave him enough clout to begin the process on his next motion picture. Cuaron has said that Gravity was the biggest miscalculation of his entire career, in that he had no idea how long it would take to get his vision to the screen. When he approached his longtime cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki about this project, Cuaron said that the process could be completed relatively quickly — a year, he assumed — considering that it was essentially a two-character piece with little dialogue. Gravity, however, took much longer, both to get off the ground and to become realized, with a considerable amount of time devoted to figuring out how the screenplay could be translated to the screen. Cuaron met with major filmmakers who had worked on complicated special effects films before, like James Cameron, the maverick director of Avatar, who told Cuaron flat out that the technology to make Gravity was at least five more years away. Cuaron and his crew wouldn’t take no for answer, though, and after much research and determination, they ended up inventing brand new technology just to get the film made.

As the team behind Gravity started experimenting with these mind-blowing technologies, Cuaron met with potential actors. Angelina Jolie was the first to be cast as Dr. Ryan Stone, but she dropped out due to scheduling conflicts, and Cuaron went on to consider Natalie Portman, Marion Cotillard, and Scarlett Johansson. The one who proved to be the best choice for the role, as it turned out, was Sandra, and he approached her at her home in Texas, during the summer of 2010. She was hesitant to take the role at first, having endured a very public break-up with her former husband Jesse James, and taking care of a newly adopted child Louis at home. Sandra was in awe of Cuaron’s work, however, and had been hoping for an opportunity to work with him. She eventually signed on, making Gravity one of her first two projects following her Oscar win for The Blind Side. Early in pre-production, Robert Downey Jr. was attached to the role of Matt Kowalski, the only other major character in the film, but he eventually dropped out, too, for undisclosed reasons, and George Clooney came on board the project, marking the first time that Sandra and Clooney — close friends since they were struggling actors in the late 1980s — finally worked together in a movie.

Soon after Sandra wrapped her small part in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, she flew to London and began work prepping for Gravity. To achieve all that was needed of her on this unusual production, Sandra spent months training with two fitness instructors who specifically aimed to strengthen her core. During the production, she spent long hours hanging on wires, and she needed to be in tremendous shape to physically endure the trying and claustrophobic shoot. It was the most demanding filming experience of her career, with Sandra at times having to spend up to ten hours a day stuck inside a tiny nine-by-nine light box on a bare soundstage all alone, acting off nobody, and having little human interaction. Clooney was on set for a small part of the shoot, and before and after his scenes were filmed, the Gravity production was essentially a one-woman show.

After Sandra wrapped her work on the film, she went on to star in The Heat with Melissa McCarthy, while the technical wizards behind Gravity spent more than two years in post bringing Cuaron’s vision to life. It was one of those hot projects everyone in Hollywood knew about, but who few knew of any concrete details. The first release date set for the film was November 2012, but Gravity was ultimately delayed due to the extensive post-production work that needed to be completed, and the film was ultimately pushed back to October 4, 2013. Gravity finally had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival at the end of August, and instantly received unanimous praise from critics, with many calling the film a landmark in cinema, as well as a tremendous showcase for its main star. While it may have taken Cuaron multiple years to get the film made, his hard work paid off, with audiences all over the world falling in love with this remarkable achievement.

There have been spectacular opening shots in films over the years — the first few minutes of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil come to mind — but the thirteen-minute shot that kicks Gravity into high gear might be the most astonishing of all time. The film opens simply, cutting to a quiet and awe-inspiring shot of planet Earth. There is no music, no dialogue. Director Cuaron draws the viewer into the movie slowly, allowing him time to situate himself in a setting very few people are familiar with. Clooney’s voice is soon heard, and when he and Sandra finally appear on-screen, one is completely immersed in the amazing oasis of outer space. The actors talk for a few minutes — telling jokes, voicing frustrations, uttering the briefest accounts of their lives — and the viewer watches in awe as the camera spins around the characters and gives alternating angles of people floating hundreds of miles above Earth. But then, the unthinkable happens — debris from a destroyed Russian satellite zooms straight toward the space shuttle and collides with such ferocity that Ryan gets ejected from her spot and starts flipping into the void of space. All of these events play out in real time, in one unbroken shot, a seamless piece of pure cinema that is a work of art all its own.

Once the first harrowing action scene reaches its climax, the rest of the film plays out as an intense survival story, with Ryan doing all she can to return to Earth. The second half of the movie finds Ryan working all by her lonesome, overcoming one potentially fatal obstacle after another, in order to survive. Cuaron has said that one of his influences in making Gravity was the first major work by Steven Spielberg — Duel, the 1971 TV movie about an ordinary man who is pursued by a mad trucker. Spielberg’s film doesn’t let up in the suspense and tension throughout its brief ninety-minute running time, and neither does Gravity. The scene of Ryan and Matt trying to grab onto the shuttle, for instance, offers no break from the kind of hold-your-breath excitement that one rarely experiences in modern movies, and a later scene involving a second run-in with the satellite debris is so well realized that it is hard to not have a strong physical reaction to what is playing out on the screen.

How Gravity differs from so many other action films set in space is that it has a heartbreaking, intimate story at its core, one that slowly but assuredly works its power over the viewer. There is not a lot of backstory in Gravity. The viewer is introduced at the beginning to two characters who he comes to know little about, until about thirty minutes in, when he learns that one reason Ryan accepted the mission into space is that she has endured an unthinkable loss in her life. She tells Matt that she had a daughter, a precious little girl with brown hair who died in a tragic accident at her elementary school. One would argue that there is nothing worse for a parent than to bury his or her own child, and Ryan has dealt with her own pain by removing herself from the world — literally. When she’s suddenly the last survivor of her mission, and has to go to extreme lengths to stay alive, she is faced with the ultimate question: why go on living when there’s nothing left to live for?

At one point in the movie, Ryan hits a stumbling block, when her shuttle shuts down and loses all its fuel. She immediately gives up, turns down the oxygen, and prepares herself for death. Up until this point, the film has worked as an exciting suspense thriller, with enough beauty in its impeccable visuals to guarantee unanimous praise. It is in this long, quiet scene, however, that Gravity moves into truly special territory. The camera lingers on Ryan’s face, as she starts to cry, realizing she is moments away from fading, never to come back. It is a raw, intimate moment rarely seen in a modern American blockbuster. Most directors would cut away, move to the next scene, do his best to not make the audience feel even remotely uncomfortable. Cuaron is gutsier than the average director, however, because he understands that the viewer has spent an hour with this character, rooting her on, and hoping she makes it back to Earth. The viewer is so invested in her plight that he wants to share this downbeat moment with her, still with the hope that she will persevere and not give up so easily.

Ryan’s determination to stay alive brings the film to a moving and satisfying conclusion. Cuaron doesn’t allow for much sentimentality in the movie, but he does give Ryan a tender monologue, where she talks to the invisible Matt about when he will meet her little girl. This scene, more than any other in the film, had the possibility of playing maudlin, but Sandra underplays it, not going overboard with the tears or any look-at-me kind of emotion. All it takes is one brief hesitation at the end of the monologue, when she looks up at the shuttle ceiling and takes a deep breath, to tell everything the viewer needs to know about her state of mind. As she hurtles in a small burning pod toward Earth, not knowing if she has a chance to survive, she screams in terrified delight that whether she burns up in the next few minutes or makes it to safety, it has been one hell of a ride. The last shot of the movie, another long take that is a perfect bookend to the first shot of the film, shows Ryan swim to the shore and try, with humorous difficulty, to stand up, and finally surrender herself to — what else — gravity.

In a 2013 interview, James Cameron said how much he loved Gravity, that he thought it was the best space film ever made. Cameron would know — as the director of Aliens and Avatar, he has been to space before. Movies set in space are relatively few and far between, with only two to three significant films in this science fiction subgenre released each year. The first space motion picture ever made was A Trip to the Moon, directed by George Melies and released in 1902, and over the decades many influential films followed, like The Day the Earth Stood Still, Star Wars, Alien, and Contact. More recent examples of this subgenre of science fiction films include the latest Star Trek films, as well as Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. So many of these films, however, don’t take outer space seriously, and instead treat it like a fantasy world, with monsters and aliens forever running amok. The space film closest in tone and grandeur to Gravity is Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is dead serious in tone, and more interested in making audiences think than it is in blowing up a distant planet. The film offered audiences not only some of the most stunning visual effects ever seen on screen up to that point, but also the first truly awesome look at space, and not until Gravity had moviegoers been treated to a spectacle that can match it.

One of the most impressive achievements of Gravity is its focus on a female main character for the majority of its running time. Cuaron was pressured by Warner Bros. to make the main character a man, as many studio executives still think to this day that audiences won’t go to a big blockbuster movie if a woman is leading the show. Cuaron, to his credit, never wavered from his vision, and stuck to his guns about hiring an actress for the pivotal central role of Dr. Ryan Stone. While it is not common for women to headline big-budget action thrillers, a few select actresses have paved the way for Sandra’s role in Gravity. The most obvious influence is Sigourney Weaver, Sandra’s Infamous co-star, who made huge strides for women in action cinema when she outlived all the men and became the heroine of 1979’s Alien. A riveting space film in its own right, as quiet in its many suspenseful moments the same way Gravity is, Alien offered Weaver the chance to prove that women can hold their own in big-budgeted movies the same way that men can. Her character of Ellen Ripley is witty and intelligent, and quick thinking in the face of adversity, just like Dr. Ryan Stone is in Gravity. Weaver followed her tremendous work in that Ridley Scott classic by reprising the role in three sequels, but despite the occasional action movie female lead — Geena Davis headlined 1996’s The Long Kiss Goodnight, and faced scrutiny when the film bombed hard at the box office — men typically drive the genre. For a major studio film like Gravity to feature not just a female in the lead role but a woman in her late forties, particularly in today’s teen-driven marketplace, is an important step in the right direction; hopefully the film’s massive box office success should point studio executives to offering roles like this to more women in the future.

Alfonso Cuaron has been working his whole impressive career toward Gravity, and with his latest film he has catapulted himself into the realm of the top three filmmakers working in the medium today. He started quietly in the 1990s, helming film versions of two classic novels, A Little Princess and Great Expectations. He impressed audiences with his low-budget Spanish road trip movie, Y Tu Mama Tambien, and stumped many when he was chosen over many A-listers to helm the third Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. While the darker, more immersive vision he brought to the franchise won him fans, it was his phenomenal work on his 2006 dystopian drama Children of Men that cemented his status as a true auteur. The story of a future society where women can no longer bare children, Children of Men introduced his famous long takes, and catapulted Cuaron to legendary status.

Gravity, remarkably, is an even greater achievement, the kind of film so few directors would have had the patience, or the determination, or the imagination, to ever make. He succeeded in creating a film that is unlike anything that’s come before; while movies have taken us to space time and time again throughout the medium’s history, nothing has ever demonstrated the true beauty of space quite like Gravity. He also succeeded in telling a moving, intimate story about a woman in her forties who has lost everything, and who finds the will to live even in the most trying of circumstances. The film works as a tense thriller, an emotional drama, an action blockbuster, and a bravura one-woman survival tale. That Cuaron worked on it tirelessly, day and night, for nearly five years, also shows the determination he has to get his films as perfect as possible. The film is a piece of pure artistic genius, and while Sandra and the cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki also deserve kudos for their fantastic work, Gravity begins and ends with the great Alfonso Cuaron.

Aside from some voice-work at the beginning of the film by Ed Harris, the star of two famous space films The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, Gravity features only two performances, and while the film belongs to Sandra, Clooney is equally impressive in his brief but essential role. Matt is a jokester, giving the film its only sources of comic relief when he tells humorous stories from his past, right before the first wave of satellite debris hits the station. With so much action and intensity throughout, Gravity might have been too much of a downer without at least some comedy woven into the narrative, and Clooney provides just the right number of laughs in a few key moments to give the audience a much needed relief from the tension. His humor also adds to the emotion of the movie, because after so much of his commentary lightens up what is otherwise a scary circumstance, he turns serious in a moment of self-sacrifice. If the character hadn’t been so personable before, this scene of Gravity might not have had the power that it does. His sweet, self-mocking personality makes the awesome spectacle more easily accessible in the beginning, and his chemistry with Sandra is natural throughout the brief running time they share together. The role of Matt is pivotal to the success of the movie, and no one could have inhabited this role better than Clooney.

Sandra, however, is the star, and she is a revelation in Gravity. America’s sweetheart for so many years, the lead actress in so many terrific comedies and dramas over the last two decades, she is loved the world over — and still, nobody could have been prepared for her mesmerizing, physically demanding, emotionally rich tour-de-force of a performance she delivers in this film. So much of Gravity depends on visual effects, and another actress could have gotten lost somewhere behind all that beautiful imagery. Even when the viewer can only see her face inside a space suit for the first thirty minutes, her presence is felt in each second of screen time. The quiet despair she displays is evident from her first shot on screen, when she is focused on the technical job she has at hand. When the debris hits, she panics and screams, like any normal person would do, but when she makes it back to the shuttle and finds herself the sole survivor, Sandra’s rarely utilized physicality comes into play. In the film’s most striking shot of all, Ryan enters the shuttle, takes off her heavy suit, and curls up into a fetal position, in mid-air, signifying a moment of rebirth. From this point on, no one is helping her, and she needs to fend for herself, like a newborn child. What follows are many scenes of physical tasks and problems to solve, as she slowly realizes she might not survive the strenuous ordeal. The up-and-down emotions her character goes through would be a lot for an actress to deal with in a film that takes place down on Earth, let alone in zero gravity, and Sandra is more than up to the task. She has to not only convey everything her character is thinking and feeling at all times, but also deal with the tremendously demanding physical side of the role. That such a moving performance broke through under these circumstances is some minor miracle. Later nominated for her second Best Actress Oscar at the 86th Annual Academy Awards, Sandra is the best she has ever been, in this, the film of her career.

Gravity is proof that studio filmmaking in the new millennium still has the capability to be strong and inventive, and promote the imagination. While the television medium has enjoyed a new golden age over the last ten years, some have argued that major motion pictures have been declining in quality, especially studio blockbusters, which are often dumbed down, and aimed at kids and teenagers, to make the highest profit possible. Gravity, however, stands out as a true anomaly; it is a big-budget studio film made with love and artistry, that was geared toward an adult audience, that allows for a woman in her late forties to command the screen all by herself, and that promotes ideas over explosions. Gravity is an astonishing film, an instant classic, and it offered fans of Sandra, after twenty long years, a reason to celebrate.

Best Scene: Sandra starts weeping when she realizes she’s about to die.

Best Line: “Either way, it’s going to be one hell of a ride.”

Fun Facts

Gravity won seven Academy Awards, including Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Editing. It lost Best Picture to 12 Years a Slave, and Sandra lost Best Actress to Cate Blanchett, for Blue Jasmine.

Aningaaq, the man Sandra talks to over the shortwave radio, is the main character of the companion short film Aningaaq, directed by Jonas Cuaron, which shows the other side of the conversation.

For research, Sandra talked to Astronaut Cady Coleman about life in space.

Because of Cuaron’s lengthy takes, Sandra had to memorize long combinations of precise movements to hit her marks at different points in the shot, as well as coordinate her own moves with those of the wire rig attached to her and the camera.

Along with 12 Years a Slave, Gravity is the first film in history to tie for Best Picture at the Producers Guild Awards.

While filming the underwater scene, Cuaron held his breath along with Sandra to make sure he wasn’t asking too much of his leading lady. He soon found that he couldn’t match her lung power.

The film was shot on digital cameras. However, the last scene of the movie was filmed in sixty-five millimeter, in order to give a hyper-reality look.

With more than forty feature films behind her, Gravity is Sandra’s most successful motion picture to date.

Posted in Film, Writing

How to Write Happy Endings that Feel Earned

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Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

Review — How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)

This is it. This is the one. The mother of all Christmas movies. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation comes close, It’s a Wonderful Life is a classic, Home Alone is still a personal favorite, and all those claymation movies from the ’60s, like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, are a lot of fun. But How the Grinch Stole Christmas remains the cream of the crop in my eyes. It does so much in so few minutes. It has a sweet message that never tires. It features one of the most memorable antagonists in movie history. The songs are perfect. The narration is terrific. And it gets in and out in under a half-hour. It’s about as close to a perfect film as they come.

There was great controversy in the year 2000 when Ron Howard’s live-action feature-length version of the story was released to theaters. I mean, the idea of it solicited promise. Jim Carrey as the Grinch? And Howard, who had so much success beforehand working in all sorts of genres, proved to be a capable choice of director. It’s dark, grimy, ugly. The movie didn’t work at all.

The live-action version has come and gone, and the one that will stay around forever is the animated short. This movie is the real deal. From the opening animation and song that cause goose-bumps, all the way to the happy but in no way sentimental ending that finds The Grinch carving that giant roast beast with the Whos, the film is sublime entertainment. I truly never get tired of it.

Some maniacal genius decided to allow Frankenstein’s monster himself Boris Karloff to do the voice work, and he is a fantastic choice. His voice is distinct in a way that will never be repeated again. The film features three songs, all of which stay in your memory long after the movie has ended. They could’ve been annoying, and for some reason, they should be, but they work completely. And the movie features animation that looks dated, of course (it is 1966 after all) but that quality, to me anyway, makes the movie more endearing.

My favorite moment is at the end, of course, when we find out what the Whos find to be the true meaning of Christmas, even when all their presents have come to be stolen by the morning. Lately I watch this ending feeling a bit cynical, thinking that if this were to actually happen on a wealthy street in today’s society, the kids and parents would be clawing at each others’ throats. But I try not to think about that. I try to let the movie’s message fill me with the kind of hope I need lately. In most films, an ending like this would make me want to throw up, but it works in this. Why? We identify so much with the Grinch’s demeanor (I mean, everyone hates Christmas a little), and we’re taken by surprise by how these creatures react to the news that there are no material goods. We’re surprised, and the Grinch is surprised. And what happens to him after this twist development is one of the most heart-warming arcs of a character in animation history.

I love this movie. I’ll love it to the day I die. It’s rare to find a Christmas movie that blends together a wonderful story, memorable songs, a superb main character, and beautiful animation all in one neat package that people of any age can watch and enjoy. While most contemporary Christmas movies put money in the studio banks, only to be forgotten six months later, a movie like the 1966 classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas! will live on for many more years to come. It’s one of the classic stories of all time.

Watching Like a Writer

It’s easy to bring cynicism into your endings, and it’s also easy to write an ending so cutesy and sentimental that the reader can’t help but roll his or her eyes. Something this animated classic does so well is feature a happy ending that feels both earned and unexpected, one that shows a much-needed arc in the central character. I’ve always been a fan of dark endings in my own fiction, but movies like How the Grinch Stole Christmas gives me the inspiration to aim for more happy endings, ones that are emotionally satisfying without being cloying.

Exercise!

Think about the ending of your work-in-progress. Is there a way to make it a happy one without making it overly sentimental? How so?

Posted in Books

The Oz Books #13: The Magic of Oz

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A few months ago I started reading, for the first time since childhood, L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, a gorgeous annotated edition that had nearly 100 pages of biography on Baum and all sorts of neat trivia about the book. When I was a kid my mom bought me the first few Oz books, so I’ve had most of the books on my bookshelf for going on twenty-five years. The farthest I ever got back in the third grade was Ozma of Oz, and I thought it was time to finally explore what else Baum’s world had to offer.

It’s been so much fun for me to curl up in bed for a few hours each week and check out Baum’s latest offering. It’s kind of amazing to think I only have one left to read — Glinda of Oz — before this sometimes frustrating but mostly enjoyable journey comes to a close. I haven’t liked all of the books, with some so far removed from the core set characters we love and adore that at times they don’t even feel like Oz books. Unfortunately, The Magic of Oz is one of the lesser entries in the series.

Like Scarecrow of Oz and Riki-Tink in Oz, the characters we’ve come to know and love act as side characters to the new Kiki Aru, who finds great use with his newfound magical power. Baum bounces around to a few stories throughout the novel, essentially making this his “Magnolia,” but unfortunately the storyline here is nowhere near as compelling as the twelfth book in the series, Tin Woodman of Oz, which kept me throughout engaged from beginning to end.

I find the best books in series, like Ozma of Oz and The Emerald City of Oz, to have high stakes, with the lesser having little to no stakes, like The Magic of Oz, which has a storyline that depends on whether or not Dorothy and the Wizard can find Ozma a frickin’ birthday present (!). The best scenes of the book occur at the end, like when all of the characters sit around Ozma’s birthday table and make conversation, and the last chapter when the Nome King finally gets his comeuppance in the Emerald City.

Overall, this was an OK read, not the worst of the series, but not one of the best either. I have a fixation on the books revolving around the characters from the previous books that I’m interested in, and when Baum throws in a new character for half the book that doesn’t offer much interest or personality, I tune out a little.

Let’s hope Glinda of Oz ends the fourteen book series on a high note!

Posted in Books, Writing

My Favorite Writing Lessons from Ray Bradbury

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Published in 1990, Zen in the Art of Writing is a collection of essays written by Ray Bradbury about his love of writing. The essays were written over the course of thirty years, not all at once for this collection. But they echo the same truths behind one’s writing.

Ray Bradbury is the writer behind many classic works of fantasy, science fiction, and horror, including Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, and Something Wicked This Way Comes. He wrote twenty-seven novels, and he also wrote for movies. He won multiple awards, including the Emmy award, the National Medal of Arts, and the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

There are many practical advantages here, especially in what he discusses in the early essays. Some practical pieces of advice he gives: number one is to write 1,000 words a day, every day (kind of like Stephen King’s rule!), he recommends that you don’t think so much when you write and try to be free, the usefulness of reading more poetry to understand how to use more senses in your writer, and he also recommends we write from a place of truth.

The primary audience here is writers of fiction, particularly short story writers, since, as a speculative fiction writer, he discusses in depth strategies to strengthen your plots and characters. The secondary audience is anyone who loves to read, because he goes into not only strategies in writing but backstories of how some of his most famous books came to be.

Ray Bradbury is one of the most popular and important authors of the twentieth century, and this, his one and only non-fiction book, is worthy of study by all who are interested in writing, because he offers sound advice on how to better your writing, produce more writing, always write from a place of truth. Ultimately this book makes you fall in love with writing all over again.

Bradbury recommends you run fast when writing, and stand still when you need to observe. One or the other, and nothing in between. He goes on to give biographical details, telling how in the beginning he imitated writers he liked and only occasionally wrote something worthy of interest. He wrote out a list of nouns, picked one at random, and wrote a story. THE BABY. THE CROWD. THE LOCKET. THE BEACH. Had a story called THE THING where he wrote down the noun in 1926 and finally wrote the story in 1986.

He recommends you not just sit around and wait for the muse to show up. He says to read a lot of poetry. Every day! Also, essays. Any collection you can find. He wants you to find books that help your senses, in the way you describe things in your writing. The one thing that holds it all together? Excitement! You have to be excited about your writing, or it will die a quick death on the page.

He says that he writes 1,000 words or more every single day, and would average at least one story a week, if not more, since he started writing in his teens. It took him years to write something good, but it was all about practice, practice, practice. When he turned twenty-five, he sold three stories in three days!

In the last major chapter, Bradbury discusses the importance of work and relaxation as a writer. The work must be done, but the writer also needs to relax. We can’t do it just for the money, or the fame and fortune. We have to write from truth. We have to write what speaks to us, what makes us unique. If we can find our truth, we can really start saying something.

Posted in Fiction

Larry’s Last Day: A Short Story

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Larry’s Last Day

by Brian Rowe

Larry Trapper had tears in his eyes as he made the twelve-minute drive from his apartment on La Cienega to the large yellow building next to I-10. He opened his center console and fished his fingers past the empty gum wrappers to grab a folded napkin. He dabbed it under his swollen eyes and tossed it on the passenger seat.

When his cell phone rang, Larry let the call go to voicemail. He wasn’t in the mood to talk to anybody. If his own mother had been calling from beyond the grave to tell him the meaning of life, he still wouldn’t have answered.

Larry pulled off the freeway and parked in his reserved spot, behind the building. He glanced to his left, and as the cold April wind wafted against his tired face, he let out a loud sigh. He was more than an hour early — but there were already three cars in the parking lot.

“This is bullshit,” he said, and struck his fist against the steering wheel.

He walked to the back entrance and shoved the key into its lock. At first the door didn’t open, and for a moment, he wondered if he had already been locked outside forever. But then he jiggled on the handle and jammed the door open.

Music blasted from the ancient speakers overhead. Sugar Ray’s “Every Morning.” His least favorite song of the last five years.

“Hello?” he shouted, like he was trying to wake up a room full of senior citizens. He took his first step inside and reared his head around the corner. “Is someone in here — ”

A young man brushed past his shoulder. He was bopping his head up and down to the music as he carried a gargantuan brown box. Two VHS tapes spilled over the top and landed on the lime green carpet.

“Give me that!” Larry stomped toward the young man, the kid, the thief. “You guys weren’t supposed to be here until nine!”

He stepped on the kid’s foot and heard an exaggerated scream. Larry ignored it. He grabbed the box and pulled open the top. Horror movie tapes. Seventy, maybe eighty. Everything from the Universal monsters to the Wes Craven shockers.

He set the box down and looked toward the front of the store. Two signs were already on the windows, both boasting the same thing, what had finally been forced on him: NEW DVDS FOR SALE! NEW DVDS FOR SALE!

“No,” he whispered. “Too soon. It’s too soon.”

“Aww, is someone sad?” a voice said from behind.

Larry didn’t turn around right away. He thought if he stayed focused on the desecration of the store, the person behind him would go away, or, even better, disintegrate.

But the voice continued. “You need to get with the times, my friend. We’re already a year too late. Six more months of this and we would have — ”

“Stop talking!” Larry couldn’t take the inane rant any longer. He spun around and looked down — way down. His boss Bill was five-foot-four, but his bulky hat bumped him up another inch or two. Larry pointed at the young men carrying the boxes and said, “I want these people out of here! I want them gone!”

Bill took a step forward. Despite his diminutive size, he had the confidence of a billionaire CEO. “It’s not up to you, Larry. Face the times we’re living in.”

Larry leaned down and grabbed his boss by the collar. “You have exactly one minute or I’m throwing them out myself.”

An awkward silence ensued. Larry and Bill stared each other down as if either one glancing in a different direction would bring on a fiery apocalypse.

Finally, Bill grinned, and pulled up his black briefcase. “You know what? I was gonna do this later, but what the hell.” He opened it up. Shuffled through a mountain of pages and handed a document to Larry.

“What’s this?” Larry asked, looking over the page like it was written in Cantonese.

“I’m sorry, but I’m letting you go.” He stood up straight, and shut his briefcase with a loud click. “It’s not working out. You’ll get your last check on Friday.”

Larry crumpled up the page and glanced toward the new rack of DVDs. Forty copies, at least, of the same movie: I Still Know What You Did Last Summer. He grabbed one. Studied the front and back of the case.

Then he took out the shiny DVD and threw it at Bill, like a Frisbee. It smacked his boss on the forehead and dropped to the ground.

“Forget the damn money,” Larry said. “I just want the tapes.”

“You want the — what?”

Larry pushed past Bill and grabbed the brown box. As he carried it out of the building and to his car, he thought a heart attack was imminent; the box weighed so much that big globs of sweat trickled down his cheeks and chin. He opened his trunk, shoved in the box, and quickly sped down the one-lane road, back to his apartment, the only place he could still call his home.

He turned the radio on, but the station was playing “Every Morning.” He slammed his fist against the dial and rode the rest of the way in silence.

He pulled into his parking spot and walked up four flights of stairs with the heavy box. The elevator had been broken for an entire week, and the landlord kept promising she would get it fixed. He considered pounding on her door and yelling at her, too, but he didn’t want to talk to anybody. Not today. Not for a long, long time.

Larry walked the ten steps into his living room, faced the sixty-inch-screen TV that took up the entire wall, and opened the box. It was April twelfth, 1999.

“Let the horror marathon begin,” he said.

Posted in Theater

Why Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 Remains an Important Play

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Following the L.A. riots of 1992, the acclaimed actor and writer Anna Deavere Smith interviewed about two hundred people for Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. The play premiered on stage in 1993 as a one-woman show performed by Smith herself. It consists of unaltered monologues from her interviewees of multicultural identities, meaning an ensemble of many difficult cultures. The play includes characters of different classes, professions, genders, and races, all of them giving their views on the riots that took place in late April 1992. Smith talked to former gang members, the aunt of Rodney King, a juror in the trial, the former mayor of Los Angeles, and members of the police department. She approached people less connected with the case but still with much to say, like an appliance store owner, a lumber salesman, literary critics and scholars, and a former liquor store owner. In addition, Smith interviewed members of the film and television industry — this is L.A. after all — most notably an anonymous Hollywood agent and a major Hollywood producer named Paula Weinstein (Fearless, Analyze This, Blood Diamond). Although these industry figures offer unabashedly personal viewpoints and the occasional wise insights, they also emphasize the stereotype that Hollywood is a bubble of white privileged creative talent that look at other races as mere outsiders.

Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, was produced in Los Angeles directly following the April 1992 riots, a time when conversations about racial prejudice and social injustice were becoming part of the national norm; however, it was also a time when talent outside the white community, particularly at high levels in the film industry, weren’t playing major roles in the content that was being produced. According to Box Office Mojo, around the time of the L.A. riots, the biggest box office hits in the nation were Basic Instinct, Beethoven, and Wayne’s World — all films directed by and starring Caucasians — with only White Men Can’t Jump as an example of a film about race (although only one of its two stars is African-American) (Box Office Mojo). Look at the highest-grossing films of the year and the only significant film toward the top with a black actor is Sister Act, starring Whoopi Goldberg (Box Office Mojo). Compared to 2017, when acclaimed films like Hidden Figures and Get Out broke box office records, not to mention Moonlight winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards, the entertainment industry in the early 1990s was lacking in its representation of different races, as well as discussions about race and class, and so Smith had to take it upon herself to make a statement with her skills as both an actress and a playwright.

Smith — the creator, writer, and performer of Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 — has played a major role in the theater world, as well as film and television (she appeared in the film adaptation of Rent and was a series regular on the Emmy-winning Showtime series Nurse Jackie), and since she is a Hollywood professional herself, it is surprising that the people she chose to represent the industry in Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, don’t do a better job of looking at other races on equal terms. Being African-American, after all, played a major role for Smith in the writing and performing of her most famous play, as she discusses in the book’s introduction: “My predominant concern about the creation of Twilight was that my own history, which a history of race as a black and white struggle, would make the work narrower than it should be” (Smith xxii). Therefore Smith felt compelled to collaborate with dramaturges of different races, and of course interview a wide variety of individuals for the play to bring her unique vision to life. The interviews of people who work in the entertainment industry reflect a bubble of white privilege, but as Smith says in her introduction, “Few people speak a language about race that is not their own. If more of us could actually speak from another point of view, like speaking another language, we could accelerate the flow of ideas” (Smith xxv). What she suggests here is that no matter what white members of the industry she could have chose to interview, there would always be an element of ignorance shown toward members of other races, and the best she could do was offer a plea for more unity among people with different viewpoints in the years to come.

The members of the Hollywood industry interviewed for the play are not protagonists or antagonists; they are members of a large ensemble giving their opinions on a news-making event that happened in their city. Although these specific individuals aren’t necessarily more flawed than others in the plays, some of their comments point to a larger problem of racial insensitivity. Take the anonymous Hollywood agent for example, who says that while the riots were taking place, “it was business as usual. Basically, you got such-and-so on line one, such-and-so on line two” (Smith 134). He then goes on to talk about the fear on everyone’s faces — white faces of privilege specifically — before mentioning that when he heard the Beverly Center was being burned down, his response was, “It almost doesn’t matter who [is burning it down], it’s irrelevant. Somebody. It’s not us! That was one of the highlights for me” (Smith 137–138). Making matters worse, he even shuts the interview down for a moment to leave the room and take a phone call. Hollywood agents are important figures in the industry that represent the producers, directors, writers, and actors who are telling the stories everyone will go out and see, and his interview reflects supreme ignorance of the L.A. riots and of people of different races, as well as his disrespect to Smith herself. The agent suggests that as long as a different race was at fault for the worst elements of the L.A. riots, that he could sleep easy at night, when really he should be paying attention to the racial divide taking place and point to what can be done to mediate the situation, not make it worse.

The story of the play takes place in six parts — Prologue, The Territory, Here’s a Nobody, War Zone (the longest), Twilight, and Justice — with Smith noticeably featuring the industry professionals in the War Zone segment, strengthening the idea that the creative members in Hollywood operate in a bubble. The first three parts set up the context for the L.A. Riots, many of the interviews reflecting the beating of Rodney King and the ensuing trial, while the second three parts dig deeper into the event, its intentions, and its meaning. The interviews with the Hollywood elite take place in the book’s second half, which for the most part reflects a diverse group of people discussing what was happening in their own lives during the L.A. riots. At this point in the book, Smith stretches outside of people closely involved with Rodney King to get more specific reactions from individuals less directly affected by the event, and therefore the members of the entertainment industry feel comfortable in giving their personal viewpoints that may include utterances of ignorance and racial insensitivity, not feeling the need to shy away from comments that many may deem offensive.

The setting of Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, is unique in that on stage each interview segment required a change in background, costumes, lighting, and more, and something extremely telling about the people who work in Hollywood is that their sets are located in high-rise buildings that look out over everyone else, particularly when it comes to the agent and the producer. The text describes the agent interview’s setting, for example, as “a chic office in an agency in Beverly Hills,” suggesting that this person works in an economically thriving side of town (Smith 134). Smith conducts her interview with famous Hollywood producer Paula Weinstein over the phone, but where she’s located suggests a similar setting to the agent’s: “[Weinstein] is at the Four Seasons Hotel in Chicago. She has been on a movie set all day” (Smith 204). This example makes the case that even when the industry professionals are away from their chic offices that they are still inhabiting fancy hotel rooms high in the air that look out over others in whichever city they’re inhabiting for the necessities of a movie production. As author Jake Mattox discusses about the play, “[The Hollywood agent and producer] demonstrate the problematic knowledges that can take root when different classes and racial groups are separated geographically” (Mattox 228). These people do not work on the same level as most other individuals interviewed, which calls to attention this bubble of white privilege that is so difficult for Hollywood professionals to distance themselves from.

With Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, author Smith is trying to convey the message that we are all more similar than we are different, and even the Hollywood members, despite some of their occasionally questionable character, add to this optimistic reality. Smith went out of her way to interview as diverse and multicultural group of Los Angeles inhabitants that she could. In return we get to see many different points of view on the riots, but also the desire for people of different races and classes to be more connected and not feel pulled away from one another. Although there is a tendency for the Hollywood members to put themselves on a pedestal, Smith manages to get a more thoughtful perspective on the riots from producer Weinstein, although she does still take the Hollywood agent’s view on different races as the other. At one point Weinstein says, “it was as if nothing, no connection, had been made [with them] […] It was a fake euphoria we all felt” (Smith 212). Weinstein at least made an effort at the time to bring attention to the various tensions between races and classes, but she also demonstrates her white privilege by suggesting feeling a euphoria for doing good for members of other races not throughout her years in the industry but for merely a few select days following the riots.

The language is particularly fascinating in Smith’s play because she lets the interviewees speak for themselves by including only their words, unaltered and unedited, without putting any of her own analysis or meaning to what they say, but the problem with the language is that Smith is then forced to include both the intelligent comments and the ignorance of other races uttered when it comes to the Hollywood professionals featured in the text. Smith’s creative presence in the project comes in the order that the interviews are printed, and of course in the decision to bring some of these moments to life on stage by inhabiting each and every character she performs. The use of language makes it so that the members interviewed from the Hollywood community have no one to blame for how they’re represented than the individuals themselves, Smith not at fault for how anyone looks or comes across because she’s merely using the words they said to her in the moment. It is for this reason that the agent likely asked his or her name to be deleted from the play and be designated at anonymous so that the occasionally offensive comments wouldn’t ultimately damage his or her career.

Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, is an important and incendiary play that allows readers and theatergoers to understand the thinking that different cultures took toward the L.A. riots, and although the interviewed members of the Hollywood community display the occasional lack of empathy toward the traumatic event and tend to deem members of other races as outsiders, their thoughts add additional insight into the kinds of fears and questions people at the time were feeling all over Los Angeles. Smith took a giant risk telling this story the way she did, but she was ultimately successful, not only as an ambitious artist in both writing and performing, but also as a member of a community who wants to see people come together and not grow distant from one another.

Works Cited

“1992 Domestic Grosses.” Box Office Mojo, www.boxofficemojo.com/yearly/chart/?yr=1992. Web. 3 March 2017.

Mattox, Jake. “All You Needed Was Godzilla Behind Them: Situating Racial Knowledge and Teaching Anna Deavere Smith’s Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.” KALFOU, Vol. 1, Issue 2, 2014, 221–231.

“May 1–3, 1992.” Box Office Mojo, www.boxofficemojo.com/weekend/chart/?yr=1992&wknd=18. Web. 3 March 2017.

Smith, Anna Deavere. Twilight, Los Angeles, 1992. First Anchor Books Edition: New York, 1994. Print.