Posted in Film

The Sandra Bullock Files #48: Bird Box (2018)

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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.

Since following Sandra Bullock’s long career since I saw Speed at the age of nine, there were always a few things I hoped she would get to do in her upcoming film projects. For instance, I wanted her to work with truly great directors, which she almost rarely got to do. It wasn’t until her terrific performance in Crash that she finally received some much overdue critical notices for her dramatic acting, and it wasn’t until winning an Oscar for The Blind Side that some great directing talent finally stepped up, namely Stephen Daldry and Alfonso Cuaron. For nearly twenty years I waited and waited for Sandra to participate in a brilliant, groundbreaking movie, and I finally got it in 2013 with Gravity, still one of my favorite films of late.

Her output since Gravity has been more misses than hits, although I’ve enjoyed a lot of what both Our Brand is Crisis and Ocean’s Eight have to offer. Our Brand is Crisis gave Sandra one of her best and more daring roles ever, and Ocean’s Eight is a blast from beginning to end, an entertaining flick that’s no masterpiece but is still certainly time well spent. Apart from seeing her work with great directors and making at least one superb, Oscar-winning film, there was one more thing I hoped to see Sandra do one day. She’d flirted with the genre in subpar films like Murder by Numbers and Premonition, and one of her first break-out roles was in the genre film The Vanishing, starring Kiefer Sutherland and Jeff Bridges. But really, Sandra had never made a great thriller, and she’d never come close to my all-time favorite movie genre — the horror film. That all changed this year, of course, with her newest movie, Bird Box, which premiered December 21st not in your local movie theater, but on Netflix.

Based on the 2014 novel of the same title by Josh Malerman, Bird Box tells of a woman named Malorie who suddenly finds herself in a new terrifying world where opening your eyes outside kills you, and fast. When people everywhere look outside, they see their deepest, darkest fears manifested in something before them, and what usually follows is suicide. A few months pregnant, and scared beyond imagining, she finds shelter in a man’s home, one with windows completely covered, one that seems to be safe for anyone who dwells there. But then bad things happen, most of them outside of her control, and years later she finds herself taking two children on a treacherous journey on a rowboat down a river, hopefully to somewhere where she and the two young ones will finally have a chance to survive.

Bird Box should be a total delight to Sandra Bullock fans; it sure was to me. How cool of her at this point in her career to take on a scary, intense genre film, one that she is front and center in from the first scene to the last. This is in no way a typical Sandra performance. She’s mean, she’s tough, she wields a shotgun, and a whole load of other weapons. She screams at two little children in one scene after the next, and she always tells the adults in the room what she thinks of them when they’re making mistakes. This is one of her boldest performances, one that she commits to from the beginning to the end, and it offers, easily, some of the best acting of her career. She could have phoned it for another five years, sleepwalked through a role the way she sort of does in Ocean’s Eight, a fun movie that doesn’t really give her much to do. In Bird Box, she inhabits a flawed, complicated character, not only a woman stuck in a dystopian world where you can’t look outside, but also a woman who never wanted to be a mother and has suddenly found herself pregnant and uncertain, and more alone than ever before. The two timelines in the movie offer completely different sides to her character, and it’s a joy to watch Malorie evolve the way she does.

Now, unlike her recent Our Brand is Crisis, which has a great Sandra performance in an otherwise so-so movie, Bird Box works, and works beautifully. Oscar-winning director Suzanne Bier, who made the brilliant movie Brothers from 2005 (my favorite film I ever saw at the Sundance Film Festival), made the right choice in not aiming necessarily for huge scares and big gruesome set pieces. She keeps this story instead focused entirely on Malorie, showing us the terror of this new world through her eyes, and it makes the journey all the more compelling. Bier has put together an impressive cast and crew, starting with a group of supporting actors that make this movie truly pop off the screen. One of our finest actress Sarah Paulson, who just co-starred in Ocean’s Eight with Sandra earlier this year, plays her sister at the film’s beginning and offers a masterclass in acting in just a few short minutes. Paulson’s final scene outside of the car is probably the film’s most horrifying moment. Other great actors in the film include Trevante Rhodes, Jacki Weaver, Danielle Macdonald, and John Malkovich, who all bring something special to the movie. Vivien Lyra Blair, who plays Girl, and Julien Edwards, who plays Boy, are equally strong as the two children, always believable in their many tension-filled scenes on the river.

The film also looks and sounds amazing. From that incredible opening shot of the camera descending toward the water, I was taken by Bird Box’s gorgeous cinematography by Salvatore Totino. I loved all the little details we get, like shots from inside the blindfolds when the characters are running outside, and the massive sweep of that river, especially when Malorie and the kids reach the rapids. Some might think that because this film premiered on Netflix that the production might have tried to cut corners, but such is not the case with this film; it looks spectacular. The sound work is superb as well, and I particularly loved the eerie score provided by two of my favorites, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who scored David Fincher’s last three features.

As great of a team that was assembled for this movie is, though, none of it would have mattered much without Sandra’s incredible performance. She’s been my favorite actress for going on twenty-five years now, I wrote a book about her films, I got to meet her twice (once at The Lake House premiere in Los Angeles, and once at a tribute gala in Santa Barbara). For so many years I wanted her to be in better movies, wanted her to take risks as a performer. Since she won her Academy Award, she has been impressing me more and more in movie after movie, and while Ocean’s Eight left a little to be desired, she has returned in full force in Bird Box. This is her movie, this her story, and she was the perfect actress to bring the character of Malorie to life.

Sandra really has been on one hell of a ride for the past thirty-one years — and she’s enjoyed one hell of a career. When in the early 2000s it looked like she would languish in romantic comedy hell forever, she finally broke through in films like Crash, Infamous, and The Blind Side to become an actress who is finally being taken seriously. While Speed remained her best movie for nearly two decades, that terrific action film was finally eclipsed by Alfonso Cuaron’s masterpiece, Gravity. When many doubted she would ever be considered for a major award nomination, she was nominated and won the Oscar for The Blind Side, and then was nominated again just four years later for Gravity. And with her newest film Bird Box, now available on Netflix, she shows us once again why she’s one of the very best in the business. Sandra Bullock is a worldwide treasure, and as she continues on, starring in hopefully many more films to come, expect me to be there rooting her on every step of the way.

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Best Scene: The car going out of control, Malorie and her sister inside.

Best Line: “Every single decision I have made has been for them.”

Fun Facts

Sandra’s first horror film.

Sandra’s first film to premiere on Netflix.

Sandra previously co-starred with Sarah Paulson earlier this year in Ocean’s Eight.

Sandra has said in interviews that she was blindfolded on the set of this movie about fifty percent of the time.

Thirty-one years since her 1987 film debut Hangman, Sandra has now starred in more than fifty projects to date.

Posted in Film, Writing

How to Use a Famous Setting in Your Fiction

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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!

You’ve seen the scenario before: he wants to pretend like it’s any other day and throw an action flick into the DVD player, and she wants to play a double feature of the most romantic movies ever following a candlelit dinner at Café de le Paix. What’s a way to leave both members satisfied in this scenario? This coming Valentine’s Day, the best kind of movie to watch together is one of the more rare of genres: the action romance! Here are five alternative Valentine’s Day movies worth watching…

5. Breakdown (1997)

Jonathan Mostow’s under-rated action gem is at the heart a love story, with everyman Kurt Russell on the hunt for his missing wife, played by Kathleen Quinlan. The film is pure suspense throughout.

4. Spider-Man 2 (2004)

The best of Sam Raimi’s trilogy has some of the most exciting action scenes of the previous decade, but what really makes the second installment memorable is that dizzyingly romantic finale.

3. True Romance (1993)

Someone once asked Quentin Tarantino if he’d ever make a love story, and he responded by saying he’d already made one — Tony Scott’s True Romance. The title is appropriate, with the thrilling, unpredictable action working as background to the center relationship between Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette.

2. True Lies (1994)

James Cameron has said that every movie that he has made is at the heart a love story, and that’s very true of this modern comedy action classic he wrote and directed three years before Titanic. Jamie Lee Curtis is as sexy as she is hilarious in the role of Helen, wife to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s spy protagonist.

1. North By Northwest (1959)

Alfred Hitchcock’s most accessible film, and certainly the most visually exciting of all his thrillers, North By Northwest, starring the charismatic Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, is winning from beginning to end for both action movie buffs and romantics at heart.

Watching Like a Writer

Something Alfred Hitchcock loved to do was think of an exciting scenario that could take place in a well-known setting (think the Statue of Liberty in Saboteur and beneath the Golden Gate in Vertigo) and then figure out the circumstances surrounding it. It’s absurd that North by Northwest’s climax finds the two leads running across the faces of Mount Rushmore — and yet it works! This strategy of Hitchcock’s, one of many of his that fascinate me, is something I’d love to try in one of my short stories or novels.

Exercise!

Think of a famous setting that you’d love to use in an action sequence in your fiction. What would it be?

Posted in Film, Writing

Why Stories about Family are Worth Writing

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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!

Diane Keaton has been a national treasure for the better part of five decades. She’s done a great mix of prestige dramas, like The Godfather and Reds, and classic Hollywood comedies, like The First Wives Club and Father of the Bride. And, oh yeah, I got to meet her last year!

She’s made a whole lot of movies, but here are the best she’s made in her long career…

5. The First Wives Club (1996)

This is the perfect ‘90s comedy for fans of Keaton, Goldie Hawn, and Bette Midler. There’s nothing more fun than watching a group of scorned women take revenge, and the charm of all three actresses add to the endless rewatchability of this movie. The final musical number is one of those moments that should feel indulgent but ends up being surprisingly joyful.

4. Father of the Bride I & II (1991, 1995)

It’s difficult to choose the favorite of these two movies; since they work as companion pieces, it’s necessary to include them both. Keaton’s chemistry with Steve Martin is so winning it’s hard to believe the two didn’t make any other movies together. The first installment is the better film, with a more well-rounded story and a more emotional core. But the second installment is funnier, with Martin at his hilarious best trying to stay relevant in his middle age when his daughter announces she’s pregnant. These are two of the most charming comedies of the 1990s.

3. Marvin’s Room (1996)

This underrated gem from 1996 stars four of our finest actors. Keaton and Meryl Streep co-star as sisters who have never stayed close, with Leonardo DiCaprio as Streep’s troubled son and Robert DeNiro as a bumbling doctor. Keaton gets to really flex her acting muscle in this one, playing a woman who’s devoted her whole life to her ailing father while at the same time battling a cancer of her own. There are numerous scenes of great power in this film, and the ending is truly bittersweet. If you’ve never seen Marvin’s Room, you should do yourself a favor and check this one out.

2. Annie Hall (1977)

Woody Allen’s masterpiece has as its centerpiece Diane Keaton’s warmest, most joyous performance, one that rightfully earned her a Best Actress Oscar. It’s hard to believe this film was originally conceived as a murder mystery with some romantic comedy thrown in! Although everything Allen made with Keaton is great, especially Sleeper and Interiors, Annie Hall is his finest hour, telling of the beginning, middle, and end of a relationship in memorably witty detail.

1. The Godfather I & II (1972, 1974)

Keaton has been a working actor for half a century, but her three best films all came out in the 1970s. While Part III has its moments, the first two installments are pure genius. Keaton plays the naïve wife of Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone, who over the course of the two movies discovers just what the kind of terrible life she’s gotten herself, not to mention her children, into. My favorite Keaton scene by far is at the end of Part II when she yells at Michael about what she felt forced to do because of his awful behavior. She is a powerhouse in these movies, the first two films easily the best of her career.

Watching Like a Writer

Watching The Godfather films recently, I started to think about tackling a large, ambitious novel that deals with a family. Showing how that family interacts with each other, the mistakes they make, the dreams they go after, the tragedies that occur, the love that never stops, is something I know I’d love to explore one day in a longer work, maybe not anytime soon, but someday. I wouldn’t want to write a mafia story, but I’d definitely love to write about a family that has at least a few of its members working in a business some might find controversial. Whatever I end up doing down the road, I’d want to capture the love and loyalty that exists among the large family in The Godfather films and show that no matter how flawed the characters are and how potentially evil they can be, the family does everything it can to stay together and find common ground with one another.

Exercise!

Pitch me an idea for a story or novel centered around a family. What kind of family would it be? What era would the story exist in?

Posted in Books, Film, Filmmaking, Screenwriting, Writing

Why Authorship Matters When it Comes to Adaptations

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In the early 1970s, Stephen King was like any other aspiring novelist: writing manuscript after manuscript, working hard to improve his craft, hoping for someone in the publishing industry to take a chance on him. While teaching high school to make ends meet, he began writing a novel called Carrie, a spooky horror tale of a plain-faced high school loner who has the ability to move objects with her mind. Soon after completing the manuscript, he sold his novel to Doubleday and then quickly to the movies. The acclaimed 1976 film Carrie, directed by Brian De Palma, not only catapulted King to the A-list of novelists, but it also started a trend of adapting King’s work to other mediums, including a notorious Broadway flop, two additional feature films, and an audiobook recorded by none other than the Oscar-winning star of the original movie.

A novel being adapted to both film and theater isn’t unheard of — two famous examples are The Color Purple and Mary Poppins — but it is unusual, and what can’t be denied, particularly in the case of Carrie, is how different artists bring their own visions and sensibilities to their versions of the work, in each occurrence taking someone else’s property and making it his or her own. This then raises the question: who in each of these cases is the true author of Carrie? Many might argue that King is the one and only author of Carrie, that the many adaptations are simply different spins on the exact same story, that no matter the scene alterations or song additions or endless diversions from the original text that King and King alone is the only true author of these works. However, despite King’s origination of the story itself and his influence on all the adaptations that came later, it’s clear in looking at the works themselves, from their variety of styles to their successes and failures, that the author of Carrie definitively changes from one project to the next.

King’s 1974 novel is a slim and experimental work of debut fiction, certainly not something on the surface that begs for adaptation to film or musical theater. The book has an odd structure in that only half of it plays out like a straightforward narrative, the story of a sixteen-year-old named Carrie White who’s bullied by the other girls at school when she has her period for the first time in the locker room and thinks the blood running down her thighs means she’s dying, King writing, “Carrie backed into the side of one of the four large shower compartments and slowly collapsed into a sitting position. Slow, helpless groans jerked out of her” (8). Carrie has always struggled to fit in, soft-spoken and shy, unattractive and pimply-faced, but the humiliation in the locker room sends her to the darkest of places, her religious zealot of a mother at home named Margaret not helping in the way she torments Carrie on a nightly basis. Even worse is Carrie’s fear of her increasingly disruptive telepathic abilities, not just the ability to shut books and heavy doors with only her mind but her ability to float various items through the air like she’s an all-powerful witch.

Things look up for Carrie though when a cute boy at school named Tommy asks her to be his date for the prom, and even though she believes deep down Tommy’s playing some kind of trick on her, she agrees to go and is amazed when she not only has an unexpectedly romantic time with one of the most popular guys in school but also wins prom queen next to Tommy’s prom king. The night gets better and better for Carrie, but then as soon as she reaches the podium, a bucket of pig’s blood is dumped on Carrie’s head, leaving her hair and her dress in red ruins, King writing in his exacting manner, “[Carrie] looked like she had been dipped in a bucket of red paint” (136). And then in classic King fashion, Carrie unleashes an all-out assault of her telepathic abilities on the crowded auditorium of unsuspecting victims. After she wipes out hundreds of people young and old, she returns home, kills her mother, and dies when her own house crumbles in on her.

This half of the book one could argue calls out for film treatment, but the other half, in which King includes fake newspaper clippings and extended courtroom depositions and interviews with the massacre survivors, disrupts the narrative pacing and doesn’t make for easy translation to other mediums. For example, toward the end King includes specific definitions to slang terms, like this one: “to rip off a Carrie: to cause either violence or destruction; mayhem, confusion; (2) to commit arson” (198). Also, King gives away many of the narrative’s surprises at the beginning of the book, like when he reveals on the second page that “what none of them knew, of course, was that Carrie White was telekinetic” (2). A lot of these specific details and early revelations add to the world King has created, but how does something like that make it to screen?

To do the novel justice as a film would have had to blend segments of fake documentary snippets with the more cinematic narrative, but screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen was smart to nix all the experimental material in the book and focus completely on the harrowing story at the heart of the project — Carrie’s tumultuous journey that ends in tragedy. And an even bigger stroke of genius at the time was the hiring of the up-and-coming director Brian De Palma, who had made a name for himself on horror films like Sisters and Obsession and was known for his dazzling cinematic style. De Palma could have tried to translate King’s novel beat by beat without offering his own take on the material, but instead he brings his unique gift for storytelling to his version of Carrie, which at the time was his biggest hit to date. Many argue that De Palma’s film is better than the novel, even King himself: “He handled the material deftly and artistically and got a fine performance out of Sissy Spacek. In many ways, the movie is more stylish than my book” (Rogak 82).

But whether the film or the novel is necessarily better isn’t the argument here, although it deserves to be noted; the argument is whether or not King is the true author of the 1976 film, and I believe De Palma’s fascinating stylistic approach to the material proves he and he alone is the author of the film. Take the opening for example, the way he reveals Carrie in the locker room. Instead of the novel, which cuts straight to Carrie in the shower, the film features an extended tracking shot that follows various naked and almost-naked women in the locker room for at a minute or more until we finally find Carrie huddled in the mist of the shower, the haunting musical score playing underneath that effectively builds a sense of mystery. Or take the prom bloodbath scene, in which De Palma amps up the tension by not only drenching the film stock of the sequence in dark, eerie red, but also using the unusual and unsettling and rarely utilized split-screen format.

And then of course there is that shocking final scene, “perhaps the film’s greatest departure from the novel,” in which Sue Snell, played by Amy Irving, walks up to Carrie’s grave, only to have Carrie’s hand shoot out from the ground and grab Sue by her wrist (Magistrale 3). This is a scene I would argue made the film the hit that it was, De Palma giving the audience one of the all-time great boo scares before the end credits. Additionally, in her book Haunted Heart, Lisa Rogak writes, “Some things had to be changed in the movie. In the book, as she wandered back home in shock after the prom, Carrie blew up a few gas stations, which sent the entire town into flames. De Palma struck it from the movie because the special effects would cost too much” (82). The author of a novel doesn’t have to worry about a budget, doesn’t have to worry about how to capture an entire city burning to the ground on rolling cameras, but a filmmaker has to take into account so many elements to get from pre-production to post-production, and in this capacity De Palma made important artistic and budgetary decisions to create his legendary horror film.

These reasons for why De Palma is the author of the film and not King takes us to a deeper, more complex scenario: is the director of a film always the author, even if that director follows the novel his film is based on extremely closely and doesn’t offer anything remotely innovative in terms of style? Ultimately the decision to stay close to an author’s text and not take the material too far sideways is, in a way, a major authorial decision, and it’s the decision directors David Carson (Star Trek: Generations) and Kimberly Pierce (Boys Don’t Cry) both made in their respective versions of Carrie. Carson’s 2002 TV movie is the most faithful adaptation of the novel to date, staying closely tied to the book from beginning to end, including its depictions of some of the aftermath of the massacre in ways that the 1976 movie never touched on, with a “screenplay [representing] an accurate picture of the source material’s complete storyline” (David Nusair). However, De Palma’s film is so beloved and familiar that it’s been difficult for filmmakers to pave new ground with this source material, the 2002 version suffering from “an almost excessively low-rent feel that’s perpetuated by Carson’s less-than-cinematic directorial choices” (David Nusair).

Furthermore, Pierce’s 2013 theatrical film, despite updating the story to modern times, with the bullies taunting Carrie with their cell phones in the locker room, and offering new tricks of special effects, like giving Carrie at the prom the ability to fly, ultimately skews closer to the book than De Palma’s film, particularly in the way it gives the character of Sue Snell, who begs her boyfriend Tommy to take Carrie to the prom, a bigger role throughout. Also, like in the novel, Carrie is less a tragic figure in Pierce’s film adaptation and more of a purely vengeful source of rage at the end, with Pierce “making us complicit in Carrie’s violence. The demise of the villain that was presented in such a matter-of-fact fashion in the 1976 film is instead depicted [in this version] in long, grotesque detail” (James Berardinelli). In the end, both Carson and Pierce made specific decisions, some for the good and some for the bad, to their own adaptations that make them the specific authors of these films.

The adaptation one would argue is most separate from the novel and clearly is the work of a different author than King is the 1988 Broadway flop, Carrie: The Musical. Universally considered one of the most wrongheaded theater adaptations ever made, this musical tells the novel’s horrific story through, bizarrely, singing and dancing. It’s possible for horror to work in the musical medium — Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera is currently the longest running musical on Broadway, and The Evil Dead: The Musical has been performed all over the United States to great success. But Carrie: The Musical had a lot of problems going for it, starting with a disastrous preview in London before, as John Kenrick says in his book, Musical Theatre: A History, “the producers ignored all warning signs and brought the show to Broadway with only minimal revisions” (354). For the New York production, the stage was painted completely black, and the show featured a song-and-dance number at inappropriate times, like in the brutal slaying of pigs that only gets a couple of pages in the novel and less than a minute of screen-time in the De Palma film. Additionally, there’s a moment where “a blood-soaked Carrie dripped her way down a long, impossibly white staircase [that] left many audience members laughing out loud,” suggesting that the make-up effects could have used a few more weeks of prep time to reach a point of believability (355).

Another problem with the show, an unfortunate authorial decision on behalf of its director Terry Hands, was its tone, as Ethan Mordden explains in his book, The Happiest Corpse I’ve Ever Seen: “[There was] a complete lack of humor. By 1988 we were used to dark shows, but most of them could at least affect a little sarcasm here and there” (67). The show closed after five performances, and nearly thirty years since it’s hilariously quick Broadway run, Carrie: The Musical has “proved to be the most infamous flop musical of its time, one whose title remains a byword for theatrical disaster” (Kenrick 354). Mordden additionally says, “There’s no other flop like it; there’s no other show like it” (69). But how can this be? How can a highly successful novel that was translated into one of the most beloved horror films of the 1970s, one that broke records at the box office and secured Academy Award nominations for both its female leads, have been turned into a disaster of a theater production? The reason is that King is not the author of this project, and neither is De Palma. The reason for Carrie: The Musical’s failure is purely one of authorship, director Hands not having a firm grasp on what makes the original story so compelling, and additionally not understanding how to translate that story into an emotionally resonant stage musical. Carrie: The Musical is the most fascinating example of authorship because it shows how different artists can create not just successful adaptations but also ones that are downright embarrassing.

The one medium of adaptation that doesn’t necessarily make a case for featuring a different author than the novelist himself is the audiobook. Unlike a film which has a specifically structured way to present the story of a novel, and unlike a Broadway musical which by its nature will need to create much of the book of the show from scratch to pave way for lyrics and music, the audiobook is simply a person reading the novel out loud. In the case of the 2005 audiobook of Carrie, Sissy Spacek, who played the title role in the 1976 film, lends her vocal talent as the sole reader of King’s original work. Bringing her soulful, calming voice to the project, and allowing the listener to hear King’s classic story through her words, Spacek “easily [recreates] the moods of that odd young girl” and “successfully takes on the personae of the small town’s other disparate residents” while also “[moving] smoothly from the magazine, newspaper, and official reports to dramatic scenes” (Publishers Weekly).

But could one really argue that Spacek is the author of the Carrie audiobook? I still say yes, although in the case of the audiobook I would argue that she’s the co-author with King. When a reader is alone and spending his or her time with text on the page, the author in this example is the one and only author of the text. If a teenager picks up a hardcover or paperback or ebook of Carrie, he or she will take a journey with the storyteller of the novel, who in this case is Stephen King. However, when someone speaks the words of the book to the listener, the experience between author and reader becomes a filtered one in which there is a third important body in the middle. That third body, whether he or she expects to or not, becomes co-author of the text by infusing the words with pauses and meaning, and bringing personality to all its characters. Spacek is not just robotically reading words on the page; when it comes to the “teenagers, teachers, moms, patrons, the town drunk — Spacek finds a voice for each of them” (Publishers Weekly). In the case of an audiobook, a person listening in the car or at home falls under the spell of a speaker infusing the novel’s words with a special and notable personality, not merely the words themselves, so I would argue that King and Spacek are effectively co-authors of the 2005 audiobook.

In looking at the various adaptations of Carrie, it should be clear that each new version of King’s story invites a different author to interpret the words on the manuscript page and make it his or her own, whether it’s a film, a piece of theater, or an audiobook. These various authors have the ability to build upon the original text, completely alter the text, sadly destroy the very nature of that text, but in each case, a different person is bringing his or her own talent and energy and thoughtfulness to one singular story that is inarguably part of the public consciousness and a highly significant entry in the horror canon, both in literature and in film. King will always be the original author of Carrie, but other authors like De Palma, Carson, Pierce, Hands, and Spacek have given the rich material further life in their respective adaptations. King is one of the most influential authors of the last fifty years, but it needs to be said that he’s not the author of every version made from his work; hundreds of talented artists have brought his stories to life with their own styles and visions through a vast collection of mediums that prove how incredibly unique different authors can be. Even when they’re all telling the same story, there’s always something new to discover.

Works Cited

Berardinelli, James. “Carrie (2013).” ReelViews. James Berardinelli, 18 October 2013. Web. 17 Feb. 2017

“Carrie.” PW.com. Publishers Weekly, 28 October 2013. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.

Kenrick, John. Musical Theatre: A History. The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc: New York, 2008.

King, Stephen. Carrie. Doubleday: New York, 1974. Print.

Magistrale, Tony. The Films of Stephen King: From Carrie to Secret Window. Palgrave Macmillan: New York, 2008. Print.

Mordden, Ethan. The Happiest Corpse I’ve Ever Seen: The Last Twenty-Five Years of the Broadway Musical. Palgrave Macmillan: New York, 2004. Print.

Nusair, David. “Four Thrillers from MGM.” Reel Film Reviews. David Nusair, 26 July 2014. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.

Rogak, Lisa. Haunted Heart. Thomas Dunne Books: New York, 2008. Print.

Posted in Film, Writing

Why It’s So Fun to Revisit Fairy Tales in Your Writing

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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 — Tangled (2010)

Released at the end of 2010, Tangled was the best non-Pixar full-length Disney animated feature since The Lion King. That’s right — since 1994. Let’s look at that long list of mediocre titles, shall we? There’s the decent but unspectacular Pocahontas and the dark and not quite successful Hunchback of Notre Dame. The Emperor’s New Groove is hilarious, and 2009’s The Princess and the Frog was a wonderful callback to hand-drawn animation. The only movie that came close to greatness was 1999’s Tarzan, but even that one has some issues. Tangled truly is one of their better films of recent yeares.

Does Tangled rank with the best of Disney’s late 80’s-early 90’s golden era, like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast? Well, no, it’s not on that level. And is it as good as all the Pixar movies? Well, no, it would probably rank in quality with the lesser Pixar titles like A Bug’s Life and the Cars franchise. But it works as genuinely thrilling, romantic, hilarious family entertainment from beginning to end that doesn’t have any gimmicks or forced moments. This is just a great story well told, with fine voice acting and more than enough story twists to keep things moving.

Disney has told the stories of almost all the famous princesses, but the one that until now hadn’t been told was that of Rapunzel. Instead of going a more traditional, dramatic storytelling route like The Princess and the Frog, the makers of Tangled infused this story with lots of humor and irreverence, with barely a scene that goes by that doesn’t have some comedy.

First, the really good. One of the great pleasures of Tangled is watching a classic story unfold that will work for every age range. There’s a lot of great fun for the kids, especially with a horse sidekick character that has great goofy human-like expressions. Similarly there’s a lot of humor for the adults in the audience, like all the flirtatious quips and exchanges, and a delightfully crass bar scene. But best of all, the emotional aspects of the movie, concerning the lights that fire up the sky every year on Rapunzel’s birthday, really work, and there are a handful of teary moments throughout.

Second, the mostly good. A heroine is only as good as the villain she’s up against, and the bad girl here, an elderly woman on a quest for lost youth who has an eerie resemblance to Sally Kellerman, brings to mind those classic villainesses like Maleficent and the Wicked Stepmother. The character animation and voice work is wonderfully cunning and charming. Similarly Rapunzel and Flynn are genuinely likable lead characters, with a romance that blossoms that actually feels authentic and earned. All the characters work really well in the movie, and that’s a major compliment considering so much of Disney’s lackluster projects of the last fifteen years.

Third, the not so good. They’ve never been as good since the mid-90s, and unfortunately the disappointment continues when it comes to the songs in Tangled. While they’re pleasant enough, they rank along the level of the songs in The Princess and the Frog — cute while you’re listening but wholly unremarkable. These animated movies that have singing throughout can’t ever rank on the level of a movie like Beauty and the Beast when the songs are so unmemorable.

But really, the songs being a tad underwhelming in Tangled is a minor quibble. This is a delightful film that marks one of Disney’s great achievements of the last ten years.

Watching Like a Writer

Watching Tangled again makes me think about tackling a classic Grimm’s fairy tale in my writing. Last April I wrote my one and only short story of 2018 — Gretel, which tells of a YA author who updates classic fairy tales for the new century… and then accidentally finds herself living one of them. I’ve never had as much fun in years as I had writing that story for three weeks last April. It’s fun to pick apart a classic story that you love, that is beloved around the whole world, and then put your own spin on it. I haven’t ever written an entire novel based on a classic fairy tale, but who knows? Maybe if a great idea comes along soon, I’ll give it a try.

Exercise!

If you had to write a short story or novel based on any of the classic fairy tales, which one would you choose and why?

Posted in Film

The Sandra Bullock Files #47: Ocean’s Eight (2018)

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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.

“You’re only as good as your last film” is a classic Hollywood quote, and it’s classic because it’s true. As an actor you can star in the biggest hit film of the year, and then follow it up with a real stinker the following year, and a year after that, many won’t remember you for the hit film, they’ll remember you for the stupid stinker! By 2016, such was the case with Sandra. She had two huge successes in 2013, The Heat and Gravity together amassing more than a billion dollars worldwide. There truly was nowhere for her to go but down, and down she went. Her next live-action film Our Brand is Crisis was one of her all-time massive flops, making only 7 million dollars on a 28-million-dollar budget. The film proved, sadly, that Sandra couldn’t open a movie based on only her name alone, and that for her follow-up she needed to focus on a property that would hopefully bring more audience members to the theater.

When Ocean’s Eight was first announced as her follow-up project to Our Brand is Crisis, I rolled my eyes. I didn’t mind seeing an all-female version of the Ocean’s franchise, and I was intrigued to see her make a huge studio comedy again, but everything about the movie felt like too much of a safe bet. She took a risk before with Our Brand is Crisis, the film failed, and so naturally she had to take on a project that would make a gazillion dollars whether or not she sleepwalked through her leading role as Debbie Ocean, the sister of George Clooney’s Danny Ocean. Nevertheless, the more cast members that were announced, the more excited I became. Cate Blanchett is one of my favorites, and giving her the Brad Pitt role was a masterstroke. Anne Hathaway’s casting perked my interest. Everybody, really, perked my interest, including Gary Ross, director of the first Hunger Games film, as well as the glorious Pleasantville, who came on board as the director. I knew the film wasn’t going to be an award-worthy masterpiece, but I thought it would be loads of fun. And, despite its flaws, fun this movie definitely is!

Ocean’s Eight opens on a startling image: Sandra in an orange prison uniform! She finally has a shot at being released, and she pleads her case that she is a changed person. Of course as soon as she leaves jail, she immediately resorts back to her old ways, stealing from stores and impersonating other people to get a free hotel room for the night. But Debbie Ocean has a much bigger plan up her sleeve, something she’s been thinking about for hundreds of nights in her prison cell: she’s going to rob a diamond necklace at the Met Gala. In true Ocean’s fashion, she needs some help, and she enlists both friends and strangers to help pull this heist off, including her old pals Lou (Blanchett), Amita (Mindy Kaling), and Tammy (Sarah Paulson). Helena Bonham Carter, Rihanna, and Awkwafina round out the star-studded cast, along with Hathaway, who is hilarious as a spoiled celebrity named Daphne Kluger.

This film has a fast-paced, breezy quality that is infectious from beginning to end. You can really turn off your brain in this one and just enjoy the ride, watch beautiful actresses do their thing and exude charm and power and humor. Any scene of these ladies just talking around a circle and bouncing ideas off each other is pure bliss; I actually wanted more of these scenes, ones that don’t merely function on moving forward the plot. Some of the film’s first half is too endlessly focused on setting up the heist, but thankfully, once the big Met Gala heist sequence is off and running, the entertainment level skyrockets. The heist that plays out in thirty minutes or more is genuinely surprising and suspenseful, and the big twist at the end that reveals what these girls were actually up to is a wonderfully satisfying reveal.

I enjoyed the film a lot when I saw it opening day and have happily watched it twice since. A life-long Sandra fan (in case you didn’t realize that by now), I had been waiting a long time for this one. 2016 came and went without a new Sandra film. She finally started shooting Ocean’s Eight at the end of 2016, so I assumed the movie would be released the following summer, following the pattern for Ocean’s Thirteen, or Christmas 2017 at the latest, following the pattern of Ocean’s Eleven and Ocean’s Twelve. When the film was eventually announced to be released in the summer of 2018, I wasn’t thrilled. Since her break-out role in Speed, only occasionally did Sandra take a hiatus, like after Two Weeks Notice when she pursued producing and working on architectural projects. But even that hiatus between 2002 and 2004 was shorter than this one. The thirty month period that passed between Our Brand is Crisis and Ocean’s Eight is the longest stretch of time ever between Sandra movies, beating the twenty-seven months that passed between Two Weeks Notice and Miss Congeniality 2: Armed & Fabulous.

Thus, in some regard, Ocean’s Eight got a pass from me just because I was dying to see Sandra in something, anything. I would have liked after thirty months for her to star in the greatest, most monumental film of her entire career, but if I wasn’t going to receive that, Ocean’s Eight would do. There’s a lot to enjoy in the film for Sandra fans. The opening ten or so minutes are actually my favorite, before the rest of the gang shows up, before the mechanics of the plot get into motion. Just watching Sandra wearing fabulous clothes and resorting to her thief-like ways for a few glorious scenes is a total blast. I also love her chemistry with Cate Blanchett in the film (rumors still abound that their characters had a past romantic relationship) as well as her physical transformation in the heist sequence, which, after more than three decades on screen, finally allowed her to use her fluency in the German language! The ending of the film is solid, although I think a short cameo from Clooney in the last scene would have been a nice touch, reuniting him with Sandra for the first time since Gravity and showing that Danny Ocean isn’t actually dead.

Where Ocean’s Eight falls short, ultimately, is in its themes, or lack thereof. At one point Debbie has a great line where she basically states the reason all eight people have to be women is that none of them will be noticed. The film definitely pursues this theme occasionally, but by the end, what the movie is mostly about is these women pulling off a heist and then going their separate ways, enjoying new financial independence and leading richer, happier lives. This is an Ocean’s movie. We’re not looking for poetry, for life-changing thematic themes, but I do feel the movie could be about a little more. It could offer more emotional threads among the characters, give us more moments of their internal lives. In Sandra’s huge canon of films, Ocean’s Eight is one of her emptier vehicles. It does the job, it entertains, it leaves you with a smile on your face at the end, but not much else. This isn’t a fault of this particular Ocean’s movie. All three of the male-dominated prequels are the same. Ocean’s Eleven is a kinetic thrill ride, but nothing more. Ocean’s Twelve is a complete mess, the worst of the series by far. Ocean’s Thirteen was better but still just an action exercise. Ocean’s Eight is the best since the 2001 version, with lots more story possibilities for potential sequels, and if we do ever get a sequel, I’d like to see Debbie’s character explored more, all the characters explored more, rather than have eighty percent or more of the movie just focus on the heist.

If nothing else, Ocean’s Eight was a huge financial success, further proving that women can carry a movie, and that Sandra, yes, was still a box office draw. Made on a 70-million-dollar budget, the film pulled in double that, 140 million in the United States alone, plus an additional 160 million internationally, bringing the film’s world-wide total to about 300 million, not too shabby. As I said before, this film wasn’t one of Sandra’s bigger risks, but no matter — it was still a genuine blockbuster, one that offered audiences everywhere another splendid adventure with one of their favorite movie stars. Ocean’s Eight won’t go down as one of Sandra’s best — I would put it in the middle somewhere, alongside Two Weeks Notice and The Heat — but it sure was nice to see her again after a nearly three-year wait. The best news of all? This was to be her first of two films of 2018. Yes, Sandra had one more surprise in store for her fans right before Christmas: her first ever horror film.

Best Scene: Sandra returns to her thievery right after leaving jail.

Best Line: “If you’re going to have a problem with stealing, you’re not going to like the rest of this conversation.”

Fun Facts

Ocean’s Eight follows the Ocean’s Eleven trilogy starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Matt Damon, the first of which was a remake of a 1960 film of the same name starring Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.

Debbie speaks German as a part of her cover. Sandra really is fluent in German.

Jennifer Lawrence was in talks to be in the film, which would have reunited her with her Hunger Games director Gary Ross, but she later dropped out.

The music that plays as the team enter the Met Gala, “Lara’s Theme,” was also the music that Sandra’s character Gracie Lou Freebush plays on the water glasses in Miss Congeniality.

This was Sandra’s third live-action film in a row that had George Clooney somehow in the mix. He co-starred with Sandra in Gravity, co-produced Our Brand is Crisis, and of course has a connection to Ocean’s Eight as well.

Sandra’s longest-ever gap between movies since becoming a movie star, 30 months between 2015’s Our Brand is Crisis and 2018’s Ocean’s Eight.

Posted in Film, Writing

How to Write About New Year’s Eve

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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 — When Harry Met Sally (1989)

When December rolls around, everyone starts talking favorite Christmas movies, comparing It’s a Wonderful Life to Christmas Vacation, debating whether Elf or Home Alone is better, and more than a few trying to defend the merits of Love Actually. But what about New Year’s Eve movies? What’s the perfect flick to put on after the 25th has passed us by and the 31st comes near? Not the movie New Year’s Eve, God no. And not the cheesy ’80s horror movie, New Year’s Evil. No, the one grand-daddy of all New Year’s Eve movies is Rob Reiner’s 1989 comedy classic, When Harry Met Sally. It’s not just a great movie. It also happens to be my favorite romantic comedy of all time.

Is there any director who had a better streak that Reiner had between 1984 and 1990? What made his run especially impressive is that each film explored a different genre. This is Spinal Tap, The Real Thing, Stand by Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, Misery. All terrific films, all vastly different from one another. Many of these have gone on to become modern classics, but my favorite of the lot has to be When Harry Met Sally, starring Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan in the roles that continue to define them as performers on-screen. This film shows these two actors at their very best.

The late Nora Ephron received a much-deserved Academy Award nomination for her clever and breezy screenplay, telling a love story that takes place over twelve long years before the main characters realize they’re in love with each other. This is one of those rare movies where every single scene crackles with energy, jokes, and honesty. The first two sequences set five years apart from each other could have been awkward, could have felt like prologues, but they do a great job setting up two characters that we love and want to be together by the time we get to the present day story-line.

The most famous scene in When Harry Met Sally is of course the “I’ll Have What She’s Having” gag, which many can probably quote even if they’ve never seen the movie. It still holds up as a funny scene, but I do agree with Roger Ebert that it’s one of the rare false moments in the film in that Sally as a character probably wouldn’t do what she does in the scene. I still give it a pass because it’s such a funny bit, but I’m more enamored with other, less familiar scenes in the film, like when Harry freaks out about a coffee table, or when Sally tells of a dream in which she gets stripped naked, or when Harry and Sally have it out at their best friends’ wedding.

And then there’s the New Year’s Eve ending that still gets me every time. The speech Harry gives to her and her reaction could have been too cutesy and sentimental, but it works beautifully because the words feel truthful and earned, and by the end we’ve come to love these characters so much that to not let them be together would be a narrative crime. We then cut to that perfect closer, Harry and Sally now the interviewees, but there’s something about their kiss at the party that makes for one of the most satisfying romantic comedy endings ever. Ephron and Reiner used New Year’s Eve as a heartwarming closer better than any writer and director have used it before or since.

When Harry Met Sally is the ultimate New Year’s Eve movie, and it’s also just one damn great film. It’s one of the few movies I can watch over and over again, as much as once a year, and never tire of. Even some of my favorite movies ever I struggle to watch again and again, but not When Harry Met Sally. This is due to Ephron’s brilliant, funny, insightful screenplay. This is due to Reiner’s terrific direction. This is due to the charming performances by Crystal and Ryan, perfectly cast. There’s nothing I would change about When Harry Met Sally, the ultimate romantic comedy.

Watching Like a Writer

When Harry Met Sally makes me think about how to use time in my fiction, particularly when it comes to showing how a relationship evolves over the years, and it also makes me think about how to use New Year’s Eve in my fiction. A few years ago I wrote a short story called “New Year’s Kiss,” in some part inspired by the end of When Harry Met Sally, in which two young men meet on New Year’s Eve and fall for each other in the minutes leading up to the big fireworks moment. There’s so much possibility on New Year’s Eve, the kind I think can make for a compelling story!

Exercise!

How would you use the New Year’s Eve holiday in a short story or novel? Would it naturally come at the end of your narrative, or is there a way that you could start with New Year’s Eve and take your story from there?