Posted in Film, Writing

Why Mirrors Are So Effective in Horror 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!

Review — Oculus (2014)

The horror film genre has always been my favorite, and yet it’s so rare these days to find new, original, effectively scary films. Thankfully we seem to have finally outgrown that terrible period of torture porn that existed during the time of the Saw sequels, and maybe, just possibly, we have moved on from all the dreadful remakes of classic 70s and 80s horror (maybe because there’s simply nothing left to remake). Now we are seeing more and more micro budget films from producer Jason Blum, and while not all have worked, these original small-budget horror movies have been a positive influence on the current genre scene.

Every year I’m looking for good horror, both mainstream and indie, and it’s especially a thrill when one comes out that I know next to nothing about. Oculus, released in 2014, was one of those finds. I hadn’t even hard about it until a week before its release, but as soon as I saw the positive reviews and storyline of the movie, I knew it was a must-see. One of my first short stories I ever wrote in the third grade was about a haunted mirror, and I was curious to see how a modern horror film could be made with this eerie but potentially silly hook.

Thankfully, writer/director Mike Flanagan (who has gone on to make the terrifying Gerald’s Game and the monumentally creepy The Haunting of Hill House for Nextflix) understands that, especially in horror, less is more, and for most of Oculus he lets the tension build and build, only showing us small traces of the evil that is to come.

One element I loved about Oculus was the emphasis on two dual story lines, one in the past concerning a family of four who contend with an unexpected demon, and one in the present concerning those two children, Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites), now grown up, facing their fears with the mirror once and for all. At first the cuts back and forth to each storyline were jarring, but by a half-hour in the rhythm works extremely well.

The performances are on a very high level for a film like this, especially Gillan, and, best of all, the scares come fast and fierce, especially in the second half. The twist ending I didn’t see coming, either, and usually I’m able to guess where these kinds of narratives are headed.

Oculus isn’t on the same level as 2012’s supremely chilling Sinister, still the best of the Blum-produced movies. There are a few lulls in the movie, and Flanagan actually shows a little too much, I think, in the last half-hour. But overall, Oculus is a solid horror film that’s different from the usual fare. You might not look at your mirror the same way again.

Watching Like a Writer

This film makes me think about how mirrors can be used so effectively in horror fiction. It might be a touch scarier in a film or TV episode than it is on the page for the reader, but mirrors have always struck me as a particularly useful tool in my scarier stories. Like I said in this review, one of my earliest stories I ever wrote was about a haunted mirror (and if I remember correctly, the title was Mirrors Can Be Deadly and I wrote two sequels!). My first screenplay I ever wrote had a haunted mirror. So many short films I wrote and directed used mirrors in the visual storytelling. I’ve always been obsessed with mirrors, and finally, after all this time, I’m beginning to outline a middle-grade horror novel that will use mirrors as a part of the story. What makes them so creepy? How can they be used in a way we’ve never seen before?

Exercise!

Pitch me a scene from your latest WIP that a mirror could play a major role in. What does the mirror add to the scene, and to the development of one of your major characters?

Posted in Film

The Sandra Bullock Files #46: Our Brand is Crisis (2015)

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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.

Gravity was Sandra Bullock’s biggest success to date, skyrocketing at the box office and earning Sandra a second Oscar nomination for Best Actress. She had just won the Oscar for The Blind Side four years prior, and she had since enjoyed success in a new blockbuster comedy, The Heat. So what in the world would she do next?

First, she played it safe by offering her voice talent to a film that was going to make a bazillion dollars regardless of her participation — Minions, a prequel to the Despicable Me series, that debuted in theaters in the summer of 2015. Sandra played the villainous Scarlett Overkill, her name plastered on all the trailers leading up to the film’s release. The movie earned nearly 1.2 billion dollars at the worldwide box office and provided another huge success to be added to the Sandra Bullock canon. But, about two years now since Gravity’s release, Sandra had one more surprise for audiences up her sleeve. She had a new live-action feature, her first since Gravity, that in no way was an easy sell: a political comedy set in Bulgaria released not only when our nation’s presidential campaigns were up and running but also during Halloween weekend, of all weekends. This was… Our Brand is Crisis.

Based on a highly regarded documentary released in 2005, Our Brand is Crisis floated around Hollywood for years. At one point George Clooney was going to star in the project, but then his participation fell through, and the project stalled for awhile. After Gravity, Sandra was looking for something that excited her, something challenging, and after reading a lot of screenplays with female protagonists, she and her team started digging through unproduced screenplays with male protagonists. Who’s to say the gender couldn’t be flipped, after all? When she came upon Our Brand is Crisis, she connected to the main character and the story-line, and apparently it didn’t take too much effort to change the protagonist to a female.

In the film she plays Jane, a political consultant who’s been out of the arena for awhile, enjoying a quiet life when she’s summoned to return to politics by helping re-elect a controversial president in Bolivia. She reluctantly takes the job, only to learn that her rival consultant of old, Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton, in a delightfully malicious performance) has joined the other team. The political candidates fight head to head while Jane tries to find herself again, particularly in what she truly wants to be fighting for in the years to come. The film blends comedy with drama and features a stellar supporting cast including Anthony Mackie, Ann Dowd, Scoot McNairy, Zoe Kazan, and Reynaldo Pacheco, in a terrific turn.

Our Brand is Crisis came and went like no other Sandra Bullock movie in recent history. It wasn’t a massive flop, given that it only cost about 28 million to make, but it still only made 7 million at the nationwide box office, about the amount Gravity made in a few hours on its opening day. This film’s downfall was a matter of timing, to be sure, and also the many mixed reviews, which rightfully point out that the story itself isn’t as compelling as it could be, the mix of comedy and drama is never quite successful, and the film never comes together as it should. It takes a while to get going, the ending feels rushed, and there’s never the sense that anything truly big is at stake in the story.

Having said that, I still believe Our Brand is Crisis is an underrated film, one that probably would have fared better earlier in the year, far away from the Halloween holiday, as well as the political season that was free for everyone to watch from home every day, so why go pay money to see a political film in the theater? But although the film is good, not great, and certainly worthy of many of its criticisms, the one element of the film that saddens me when I think back on this movie is the widespread ignoring Sandra’s rich and commanding performance, easily one of the three best she’s ever delivered in her long career. Although the movie isn’t one of her greatest, her performance I would rank right alongside The Blind Side and Gravity.

One thing that obviously rubbed off on her after making Gravity was taking more risks as a performer and allowing herself to inhabit characters that are deeply flawed, not always likable, filled with rage and anger. Jane is a lost soul throughout a lot of the movie, apathetic toward the political system in the film’s first third, committed to her job and her goal in the second third, and finding heartbreak and new roads to walk in the final third. She has great moments in the film where she simply sits and reflects, and also terrific moments where she commands a room like she rarely has in a movie before or since.

Sandra often joked about her 2009 flop All About Steve that one day it would be considered a cult classic, that audiences just weren’t ready for it that year and that maybe a few years later it would be better regarded. I’m almost one-hundred-percent certain that All About Steve will never be liked, by pretty much anyone, this year, or next year, or in another two decades, because it truly is an awful film. But a mammoth flop like Our Brand is Crisis, which, yes, made less money than All About Steve, is too solid of a film, with way too good of a Sandra performance, to be ignored forever, and here’s hoping, maybe not anytime soon, but down the road, that more reverence will be given to the film and that more people will get a chance to see it.

Best Scene: Sandra yells at her political candidate in an auditorium about him being nothing more than a puppet.

Best Line: “That’s the world, that’s politics. That’s how it works. It starts out with big promises and ends up with jackshit happening. But like the man said: ‘If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.’”

Fun Facts

Sandra’s only live-action film between 2013’s Gravity and 2018’s Ocean’s 8.

At the beginning of the film, a still black-and-white image from Sandra’s 1995 thriller The Net can be seen.

On the final day of shooting, Sandra had an ice cream truck brought to the set.

Her previous live-action film Gravity made more than 700 million at the worldwide box office. Our Brand is Crisis made 7 million total.

The only acting nomination received for the film was for Reynaldo Pacheco for Best Supporting Actor, from the Imagen Foundation Awards.

The first film Sandra and George Clooney co-produced together.

The first film Sandra produced (technically, executive produced) since All About Steve. I’ll say it before, and I’ll say it again: with a few exceptions, any project Sandra produces herself is typically doomed at the box office.

Posted in Film

What are the best family Christmas movies?

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Christmas is the best time of the year to sit around a warm fireplace and watch a great Christmas movie classic with your family. There are seemingly fifty great choices or more to put on every holiday season, but these five picks will keep every member of your family happy.

Here are the five best Christmas family movies for the upcoming holiday season…

5. Home Alone (1990)

This modern classic proved to be a sensation during the holiday season of 1990, and while its sequels haven’t held up all these years later, the original stays as fresh, funny, and hugely entertaining as it did nearly thirty years ago. The concept for the film — a young kid getting left home alone at Christmas — is genius, and the cast, which includes Macaulay Culkin, Joe Pesci, Daniel Stern, Catherine O’Hara, and John Candy, is totally winning. You can’t go wrong playing this one.

4. A Christmas Story (1983)

You don’t have to go far to watch A Christmas Story. Just turn on any one of the thirty-seven channels it’s playing on during Christmas Day and witness one of those timeless holiday movies that feels as necessary to fill your day as the presents fill your house and the glazed ham fills your belly. Packed with iconic moments like the rifle presents, the Santa meet-and-greet, and the frozen tongue, this movie makes you want Christmas to last a whole lot longer than just one day a year.

3. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Of all the old black-and-white movies to watch around the holidays, there’s really two musts, the 1938 or 1951 versions of A Christmas Carol. But if you can’t make up your mind which version to choose, just relax and put on Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life instead. Known as the favorite film for both director Capra and star James Stewart, It’s a Wonderful Life is a magical film that shows its main character a world in which he never existed. A darker tale, to be sure, but with an uplifting ending that will never fails to satisfy.

2. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)

It’s not a perfect movie, but there’s something just so effortless about this late ‘80s comedy, written by the great John Hughes and featuring Chevy Chase in his last great movie before slipping away into oblivion. It was criticized back in the day because the Griswolds don’t actually go on vacation anywhere, but I feel that’s part of the charm of the film, watching Clark try to give his expanded family a worthwhile, meaningful Christmas. He succeeds.

1. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)

Another hundred years will pass, and no Christmas movie will ever come close to the perfection of the twenty-five minutes of the 1966 animated TV classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas. This is a lovingly realized, enchantingly drawn animated gem that features the great Boris Karloff as the voice of the Narrator and the Grinch. The score and songs are simply magical, and the ending, which had the potential to be maudlin, marks one of the great lessons for young and old during the holiday season. No Christmas is complete without How the Grinch Stole Christmas. It’s one of the few perfect movies ever made!

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 Film, Writing

How an Unusual Structure Can Benefit Your Novel

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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 — The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)

The Place Beyond the Pines is a superb achievement, a film that plays out like a great thought-provoking novel. Derek Cianfrance’s first feature Blue Valentine was one of my favorite films of 2010, and I had high expectations for his follow-up. I had a feeling walking in this film was going to be good, but I didn’t prepare for how good.

This is one of those two-and-a-half-hour movies I could have easily watched another hour of. There’s a startling immediacy to Cianfrance’s work, from the look of his films, to the raw performances, to stories that go to very dark places. His films aren’t for everyone, but I found Blue Valentine, and now The Place Beyond the Pines, two of the best films I’ve seen in recent years.

In essence you get three mesmerizing short films in The Place Beyond the Pines for the price of one. One story involves Gosling — who continues, movie after movie, to pick great material and deliver exceptional performances — as a motorcycle stunt rider who discovers a fling he had resulted in a one-year-old child, and he starts robbing banks in order to contribute to the baby’s future.

Another story involves a cop (Bradley Cooper) who gets caught up in corruption at work and has to decide whether to rat on his fellow policemen or look the other way.

The last story involves a turbulent friendship between two teenagers who get in deep trouble when they find out just who each other is, and what their backgrounds mean to their uncertain futures. It’s a weird comparison, but the film reminded me of Psycho, in the way the narrative is structured. Essentially you think the film is about one thing, and then in ten seconds time, you realize it’s about something else. This happens twice in the film, even though in the end all the stories connect in a way that satisfies way more than any traditional narrative could have provided.

The Place Beyond the Pines may have reminded me of Psycho in its structure, but in its themes it brought to mind movies like The Godfather and Goodfellas. It’s an epic that’s not on the level of those two masterpieces, but in my mind is just one notch lower. As much as I love Blue Valentine, it’s a film very limited in scope, as it examines the relationship between two people in two very different periods of their lives.

The Place Beyond the Pines has a much broader canvas, dealing with multiple important characters over three stories, in different time periods. Yet Cianfrance still manages to keep this sprawling narrative tight and intimate at all times, and continues, even when a major character is long gone, to flash back to the beginning, to where the epic journey began. Some may be disappointed as to the fate of a major character, some may cry “how convenient” in the third act. But these surprising developments make for some of the most riveting drama I’ve seen up on the screen in many months. I was enthralled in every scene of this film.

In two films Cianfrance has been blessed with impressive casts, and everyone raises their game in The Place Beyond the Pines. Gosling is as dynamic as ever; if he could work with Cianfrance forever and ever, the world of cinema would be a better place.

And there’s Bradley Cooper, an actor I never imagined I would find in two of my favorite recent films. As great as he was in the first Hangover movie, he came into his own in Silver Linings Playbook, and he delivers just as impressive a performance here, as a cop who many call a hero but has so much guilt on his conscience that he’s having trouble surviving. When it looks like things are going downhill, and fast, for him, Cooper doesn’t hesitate in showing his character’s supreme desperation.

Watching Like a Writer

I’ve always been obsessed with unusual structures in novels and film. Think of Pulp Fiction, think of Memento. The Place Beyond the Pines also does some interesting things with its structure, and if you’re willing to follow a great storyteller who knows what’s he doing, films like these can be exhilarating experiences. I feel the same way about books that don’t commit to the obvious structure. I’ve been paying more attention to POV the last few years, and I’m always startled with an author switches from first person to third person throughout the book, or allows for a minor character to suddenly get a POV chapter halfway through. Structure is so important to a compelling story, and sometimes you have to go against the obvious to produce something spectacular.

Exercise!

Pitch me a novel project that would have some kind of unusual structure. What would the story be about? Who would be your protagonist? Would there be more than one protagonist, like in The Place Beyond the Pines?